VATICAN CITY – U.S. President Barack Obama arrived at the Vatican on Friday for his first meeting with Pope Benedict and what the White House says will be frank discussions on issues they agree and disagree on.
Obama arrived at the Vatican under tight security from the central city of L'Aquila, where he participated in the G8 summit. Much of the area around the Vatican was blocked off and cell phone coverage was jammed as his motorcade passed.
Obama was driven up to the San Damaso courtyard at the base of the apostolic palace where he was greeted by an honor guard of the Swiss Guard in full regalia.
The president, who leaves Rome later on Friday for his first visit to sub-Saharan Africa, is expected to brief the pope on the outcome of the summit, particularly its pledge of $20 billion in farm aid to help poor nations feed themselves.
Unlike his predecessor George Bush, Obama and the pope do not see eye-to-eye on abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research.
While pictures were being taken at the start of the meeting, the pope asked Obama about the summit and the president replied:
It was very productive, particularly today.
Speaking to reporters earlier this week, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said he expected the discussions to be frank and constructive.
I assume it will be a very frank discussion, Gibbs said.
Less than two months after his inauguration, Obama lifted restrictions of federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research, which the Vatican opposes because it destroys embryos.
U.S. Catholic bishops criticized Obama for lifting the ban and later many of the bishops denounced Notre Dame University, a leading American Catholic institution, for giving Obama an honorary degree.
Still, the Vatican says it wants to have constructive dialogue with Obama on a host of issues, including peace, the Middle East, the environment and dialogue with the Muslim world.
Before he arrived at the Vatican, Michelle Obama and their children Malia and Sasha were given a private tour of St Peter's Basilica and the Sistine Chapel.
(Editing by Sophie Hares)