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JOINT BASE ANDREWS, MD. (Reuters) – Pope Francis arrived on his first visit to the United States on Tuesday, bringing to Washington a message that its power and wealth should be made to serve humanity, and not the other way around.

An Alitalia plane carrying the Argentine-born leader of the world’s 1.2 billion member Roman Catholic church touched down at Joint Base Andrews after a flight from Cuba.

Schoolchildren who gathered on the tarmac to welcome Francis cheered as the plane descended. “We love Francis, yes we do. We love Francis, how about you?” they chanted.

In a sign of the importance that the White House gives to the visit, President Barack Obama took the unusual step of traveling to the air base with his family to welcome Francis.

The two men meet again on Wednesday at the White House, after which the 78-year-old pope will parade past Washington’s major monuments before a crowd expected to reach tens of thousands.

The pontiff has electrified liberal-leaning U.S. Catholics with his shift in emphasis towards forgiveness and concern for the poor. He has dismayed some conservative followers with comments of concern over climate change and a pivot away from messages focused on the church’s ban on birth control and opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.

Francis was also expected to talk about immigration during his six-day visit, a top issue for him since his first days as pope in 2013.

He will make the first address by any pope to the U.S. Congress on Thursday, a speech to the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Friday and an open-air Mass in Philadelphia where 1.5 million people are expected to attend.

Francis spent four days in Cuba, where he urged a continued reconciliation between the Communist-run island and its superpower neighbor, building on a new detente he helped to broker earlier this year.

(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton at Joint Base Andrews and Laila Kearney in Philadelphia; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Mary Milliken and Grant McCool)



SANTIAGO DE CUBA (Reuters) – Pope Francis wraps up his visit to Cuba on Tuesday and heads to the United States, figuratively connecting the two longtime Cold War adversaries who have reached detente with the help of his mediation.

The 78-year-old Argentine pope will celebrate Mass at the sanctuary of the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre, the country’s holiest shrine and one also venerated by non-believers and practitioners of Afro-Cuban religions infused with varying degrees of Catholicism.

At El Cobre on Monday, Francis prayed for reconciliation among all Cubans, both at home and around the world.

An estimated 2 million Cubans have left the island since the 1959 revolution with some 1.3 million currently living abroad, most of them in the United States, where many exiles remain bitterly estranged from their homeland.

There is great anticipation for what Francis will say in the United States, where he will meet with U.S. President Barack Obama, deliver the first address by a pope before Congress, and speak at the United Nations.

The pope avoided making overt political statements in Cuba, as dissidents had hoped he would, but used his homilies to send messages laced in spirituality about the need for change in the one-party Communist country.

He urged Cubans to think out of the box and be tolerant of other people’s ideas. At a Mass on Monday for tens of thousands of people in the eastern city of Holguin, he urged his listeners “not to be satisfied with appearances or with what is politically correct.”

The gentler approach, a contrast to the tack taken by his two immediate predecessors when they visited, seems driven by a desire to quietly encourage Cubans at a delicate time following the resumption of diplomatic ties with the United States. Meanwhile the Cuban Church is discreetly negotiating greater space for its mission.

“He has spoken with clarity, discretion and restraint,” Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi told reporters, when asked why the pope had not spoken out directly about issues such as Cuba’s human rights record and the U.S. trade embargo, which the Vatican opposes.

“The pope wants to make a contribution but the responsibility lies with the leaders of nations. He does not want to exaggerate his role, he just wants to contribute by making suggestions, promoting dialogue, justice and the common good of people,” he said.

(Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Michael Perry)