Obama and Benedict XVI to hold their first meeting

The US president, Barack Obama, who has faced vehement criticism from some American Catholics over his policies on stem cell research and abortion, is to have an audience with Pope Benedict XVI later today after the end of the G8 summit in Italy.

White House officials told reporters in the Italian town of L'Aquila that Obama, a committed Christian, was looking forward to the meeting.

"In many ways the visit is not unlike visits with other heads of state," said Denis McDonough, a deputy national security adviser.

"That is to say that there are issues on which they'll agree, issues on which they'll disagree, and issues on which they'll agree to continue to work on going forward."

Obama has faced criticism at home after he lifted George Bush's ban on government funding for stem cell research and for groups involved with abortion, reports Guardian.

Obama's election presented a challenge for the Vatican after eight years of common ground with President George W. Bush in opposing abortion, an issue that drew them together despite the Vatican's opposition to the war in Iraq.

But the Vatican has been openly interested in Obama's views and scheduled an unusual afternoon meeting to accommodate the American president at the end of his stay in Italy for a G-8 summit meeting in the earthquake-stricken city of L'Aquila and just before he leaves for Ghana.

"I think there will be frank discussion," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said earlier this week. "I think that there's a lot that they agree on that they'll get a chance to discuss," reports AP.