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White House plans meeting for Obama, Pope Francis in March

WASHINGTON--U.S. President Barack Obama will visit Vatican City in March to meet Pope Francis, whom he has praised as an “eloquent” spokesman on the scourge of inequality — a key issue in his own political agenda.

The White House said Obama would travel to see the pontiff on March 27, following stops in the Netherlands for a nuclear security summit and talks with European Union leaders in Brussels.

“The President looks forward to discussing with Pope Francis their shared commitment to fighting poverty and growing inequality,” the White House said in a statement Tuesday.

A meeting between Obama and the pontiff, who has refashioned the image of the Roman Catholic Church since his installation last year, has long been rumored following the president's approving comments about Francis.

In a speech in December, Obama praised an argument advanced by Pope Francis, the first non-European pontiff in nearly 1,300 years, on rising inequality in societies split between the very poor and the super rich.

Obama referred to the pontiff's remarks in his first Apostolic Exhortation as part of his own prolonged meditation on poverty in a speech on inequality and politics in America.

“The pope, himself, spoke about this at eloquent length,” Obama said at the time.

“How could it be, he wrote, that it's not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”

Pope Francis argued in the exhortation, that such conflicted values marked a “case of exclusion” in an unequal society and wrote that “masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.”

It was not the first time Obama had praised Pope Francis, who was elected last March and has caused a stir with his austere style and pronouncements on poverty.

In October, the president told CNBC that he was “hugely impressed” with the pope's humility and empathy to the poor.

Pope Francis has attracted wide news coverage and interest in the United States and was named Time magazine's Person of the Year for 2013.

Obama was last in Vatican City in 2009, when he met Pope Benedict.

Secretary of State John Kerry first raised the prospect of a presidential visit to the Vatican when he met Francis earlier this month.

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