Up to 12,000 visitors are expected to crowd onto the White House lawn Wednesday to greet Pope Benedict XVI, who will become only the second pontiff to visit the US presidential residence. ( dpa )
Benedict will be greeted on arrival in the US by President George W Bush Tuesday and then meet with the leader Wednesday at the White House.
"President Bush is very excited to have the Holy Father here," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Monday. "And one of the reasons he's so excited is because he has established a bond with him, and they have a lot - they share a lot of common values, especially when it comes to fighting terrorism and extremism; protecting minority rights, especially for people who are practicing a religion where they might be a minority in a country; advancing human rights; advancing freedom around the world."
Former US senator Rick Santorum, a devout Catholic, has dubbed Bush the first "Catholic president" for his adherence to social values such as opposition to abortion. Bush is a member of a Methodist church; John F Kennedy was the nation's first Catholic president but distanced himself from his faith, which was seen as a liability during the 1960 election.
However, Bush and the pontiff have had major differences, including the Vatican's outspoken opposition to the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.
Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, told reporters that the visit should not been seen as Vatican support for US policy.
"The pope and the Holy See cannot renounce with one visit all the Holy See's positions of rejecting war, always encouraging dialogue to smooth over disagreements and fostering cooperation," the Catholic News Service quoted Martino as saying.
But Benedict's message to Bush on Iraq may not necessarily be what proponents of an early US withdrawal from Iraq want to hear.
"The pope won't call for the troops to leave. He wants them to stay on a 'peace mission' - also to defend Iraq's Christian minority," Sandro Magister, a Vatican expert for the weekly magazine L'Espresso, predicted.
Bush also plans to host a dinner in honour of Benedict's 81st birthday on Wednesday, but the pontiff has other plans, and the guests will instead include Catholic leaders from around the country.
Pope John Paul II was the first pontiff to visit the White House, meeting with then-president Jimmy Carter in 1979.