President Bush welcomed Pope Benedict XVI to the White House today in a grand arrival ceremony that coincided with the pope's 81st birthday.

White House staff said the event, with its unprecedented number of 13,500 guests, was designed to reflect Bush's deep regard and respect for the pontiff. But the warm reception is seen by many as an indication of improving relations between Catholics and evangelical Protestants.

The significance of the pontiff's April 15-20 U.S. visit — his first as pope — is not lost on evangelicals. Many have found an ally in Pope Benedict, whose social convictions and message of faith coincide with theirs.

In his opening remarks, President Bush told the pope that he would find America to be a nation of prayer and compassion, one that "welcomes the role of faith in the public square," and while "fully modern," is "guided by ancient and eternal truths.

"Most of all, Holy Father, you will find in America people whose hearts are open to your message of hope," said Bush.

In a phrase that received hearty applause from the crowd, Bush referred to the pope's pro-life message, saying, "In a world where some treat life as something to be debased and discarded, we need your message that all human life is sacred, and that 'each of us is willed, each of us is loved.'"

After expressing deep appreciation for his invitation to the U.S., Pope Benedict said that he "come[s] as a friend, a preacher of the gospel, and one with great respect for this vast pluralistic society."

The President wished the pope a happy birthday, and the pontiff responded warmly when the crowd erupted in a spontaneous rendition of the ...

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