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Bush, nation greet pope on birthday
First full day in US kicks off at White House

WASHINGTON - President Bush and Pope Benedict XVI agreed Wednesday that terrorism is an unacceptable weapon for any cause or religion, standing strongly united on that issue but divided on others during a day of substance and symbolism at the White House.

The festive White House visit was the highlight of the first full day of Benedict's first trip to the United States as leader of the world's Roman Catholics. A South Lawn arrival ceremony - which also turned into a celebration for Benedict's 81st birthday, complete with energetic singing and a several-tiered cake prepared by the White House pastry chef - was followed by 45 minutes of private talks between Bush and Benedict, alone in the Oval Office.

It was the 25th meeting between a Roman Catholic pope and a U.S. president, sessions that have spanned 89 years, five pontiffs and 11 American leaders.

Bush and Benedict share much common ground, particularly in opposing abortion, gay marriage and embryonic stem cell research.

But they disagree over the war in Iraq, the death penalty and the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. Benedict also speaks for environmental protection and social welfare in ways that run counter to Bush policies.

A joint U.S.-Holy See statement hinted that Benedict brought up his concerns about the damage caused by punitive immigration laws. It said the leaders discussed 'the need for a coordinated policy regarding immigration, especially their humane treatment and the well being of their families.'

On Iraq, discussion steered away from the war itself to focus primarily on worries for the Christian minority in the Muslim-majority country, said White House press secretary Dana Perino.

Other topics included human rights, religious freedom, fighting poverty and disease in Africa, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, Lebanon and terrorism.

'The two reaffirmed their total rejection of terrorism as well as the manipulation of religion to justify immoral and violent acts against innocents,' the statement said.

It also said the leaders 'touched on the need to confront terrorism with appropriate means that respect the human person and his or her rights,' a reference Perino could not explain. Benedict has been critical of harsh interrogation methods, telling a meeting of the Vatican's office for social justice last September that, while a country has an obligation to keep its citizens safe, prisoners must never be demeaned or tortured.

One topic not mentioned as a subject of discussion was the clergy sex abuse scandal that has devastated the American church since 2002. But a private meeting later Wednesday between Benedict and American bishops at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception was being closely watched for discussion on the pontiff's trip-opening promise to 'do everything possible to heal this wound.'