WASHINGTON/HAVANA: A row has erupted after the White House invited transgender rights activists and a gay former bishop to a welcoming ceremony for Pope Francis.
Vatican officials were said to be offended by the guest list and opponents of Barack Obama accused the president of trying to use the papal visit to put pressure on the Pope over same-sex marriage and abortion.
Tomorrow (Wednesday) the Pope will be greeted on the White House lawn by Mr Obama and thousands of guests including Mateo Williamson and Vivian Taylor, who are both transgender.
Bishop Gene Robinson, who was the first openly gay Episcopal bishop in the US, has also been invited. Also in the crowd will be Sister Simone Campbell, a nun who in 2010 wrote a letter to Congress backing Mr Obama's health reforms despite objections from Catholic groups that they could provide funding for abortion and contraception.
The Vatican was not consulted over the guest list and a senior official voiced his concerns. There was particular concern that if the Pope were to be photographed with some of the guests it could be interpreted as him endorsing their positions.
Josh Earnest, the White House spokesman, denied that was why certain guests had been invited. He added: "There will be 15,000 other people there too." Ben Rhodes, Mr Obama's communications adviser, said the Pope would "make his own determinations and I'm sure he'll speak his mind".
Mr Robinson, who was bishop of New Hampshire from 2003 to 2012, blamed "conservative reactionaries" in the papal circle for what he called the "kerfuffle" over the guest list. He said: "I find it really hard to believe that Pope Francis would be too concerned about one gay guy and a feisty nun in a crowd of thousands."
It was the latest controversy ahead of Pope Francis's six-day visit, his first to the US. Last week Paul Gosar, a Catholic Republican congressman, announced he was boycotting the visit amid reports that the Pope would devote much of a speech to climate change, rather than what Mr Gosar called "the sanctity of life and Christian persecution" in America.
Before his trip to the US, the Pope spent four days in Cuba, where on Sunday he met Fidel Castro for half an hour. Yesterday the Pope prayed at Cuba's most revered Catholic shrine as he sought to revive faith on the Caribbean island after decades in which the Church was driven underground by the Communist regime.