By Philip Pullella and Tom Heneghan
1 hour, 52 minutes ago
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Saying he had come as a friend of the United States, Pope Benedict urged Americans and their leaders on Wednesday to base their political and social decisions on moral principles and create a more just society.
The pope also called for "patient efforts of international diplomacy to resolve conflicts" and promote progress around the world in an address to President George W. Bush at the White House on the first full day of his U.S. visit.
"I come as a friend, a preacher of the Gospel and one with great respect for this vast pluralistic society," Benedict said in a speech after Bush welcomed him at a ceremony that included a fife and drum band in colonial-era garb and a 21-gun salute.
At the outdoor ceremony attended by more than 9,000 people, Bush cited the role of faith in U.S. life, saying "Here in America, you'll find a nation of prayer."
Bush also referred to the September 11 attacks, which the pope will commemorate when he visits New York with a prayer at the World Trade Center site.
"In a world where some invoke the name of God to justify acts of terror and murder and hate, we need your message that God is love. And embracing this love is the surest way to save man from falling prey to the teaching of fanaticism and terrorism," Bush said.
The pope, who turned 81 on Wednesday, smiled as the crowd sang "Happy Birthday."
He praised American society, sprinkling his speech with references to the founding fathers -- citing the Declaration of Independence and the first president, George Washington.
But he made no specific references to issues such as abortion and the Iraq war, avoiding anything that could be seen as taking sides in the presidential campaign apart from saying that freedom demanded "reasoned public debate."
Benedict and Bush, who spoke privately after the ceremony, oppose abortion and embryonic stem cell research but differ on the Iraq war and capital punishment. As the pope spoke, the U.S. Supreme Court, led by Bush appointee Chief Justice John Roberts, issued a ruling that cleared the way for executions to resume for the first time since September.
Benedict concentrated on America's religious roots, which he said were a driving force in a process that "forged the soul of the nation" and won world admiration.
It was Bush who referred to abortion, a hot-button issue particularly with the presidential election in November.
"In a world where some treat life as something to be debased and discarded, we need your message that all human life is sacred ... ," Bush said.
A joint statement said their private talk addressed "the promotion of life, matrimony and the family," human rights and religious freedom, sustainable development, the struggle against poverty and the Middle East, particularly Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"The two reaffirmed their total rejection of terrorism as well as the manipulation of religion to justify immoral and violent acts against innocents. They further touched on the need to confront terrorism with appropriate means that respect the human person and his or her rights," the statement said.
GLOBAL SOLIDARITY, PATIENT DIPLOMACY
The pope said freedom "is not only a gift but also a summons to personal responsibility" toward the less fortunate.
"Democracy can only flourish, as your founding fathers realized, when political leaders and those whom they represent are guided by truth and bring the wisdom born of firm moral principle to decisions affecting the life and future of the nation," the pope said.
Benedict, who address the United Nations as part of his first trip to the United States as pope, was only the second pontiff to visit the White House.
Looking forward to his U.N. speech, the pope said the need for global solidarity is "as urgent as ever if all people are to live in a way worthy of their dignity" and secure a place at "that table which God's bounty has set for all his children."
The pope ended his speech with a loud "God bless America."
Later on Wednesday, the pope was addressing U.S. bishops, when he was to discuss the scandal of sexual abuse of children by priests, which he said had left him "deeply ashamed."
Outside the White House, some 200 people protested, with one banner reading "Catholic priests are pedophiles."
(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle, Matt Spetalnick, Andy Sullivan and Jeremy Pelofsky)
(Writing by Philip Pullella, editing by Patricia Zengerle)
(For more on religion, see the Reuters religion blog FaithWorld at http://blogs.reuters.com/faithworld)