16 APRIL 2008

As his plane touched down on American soil for the first time on Tuesday, Pope Benedict XVI had a very special reception waiting for him. Making the unusual gesture of arriving at the air force base to greet him was President George W Bush, accompanied by his wife Laura and daughter Jenna.

Hundreds of spectators clapped and cheered the head of the Catholic Church as he descended to the tarmac on his first official visit to the country since being elected three years ago. Smiling and waving to spectators with both hands, he joined the First Family on the runway.

Mr Bush is one of the US' most openly religious presidents and, although a member of a methodist church, his opinions on the sanctity of life, freedom to worship and human rights, which he shares with the pontiff, have led to him being described by some as a 'closet Catholic'.

In America on a six-day visit, the Pope celebrates his 81st birthday on Wednesday, an event that will be marked with a lavish dinner in his honour at the White House. The man himself will not be in attendance, however, as he'll be leading a prayer service in Washington.

During his stay in the States, the pontiff will address the UN, hold Mass at two baseball stadiums and lead prayers at the site of the 9/11 attacks in New York.

Photo: ©
The pontiff waves to supporters who were waiting to welcome him Photo: © Getty Images
Photo: ©
President Bush, accompanied by his wife Laura and 26-year-old daughter Jenna, was on the runway to greet the religious leader personally. Guests are usually presented at the White HousePhoto: © Getty Images
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