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Pope Francis greets schoolchildren upon departure from the Vatican Embassy in Washington on the third day of his first visit to the United States September 24, 2015.


Pope Francis told Congress on Thursday that it was time for action on climate change and that America must open its arms to migrants fleeing strife and poverty, a twin message that may discomfit many Republicans, in the first ever address to a joint meeting of the Senate and House of Representatives by the head of the Roman Catholic Church.

"The environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all," the Pope warned in soft-spoken address that directly dealt with divisive political issues, including climate change, immigration, ending arms sales and the death penalty.

"I call for a courageous and responsible effort to redirect our steps to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity," he said, winning a standing ovation from many Democrats and stony silence from most Republicans.

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From the dais of the House of Representatives, in front of a huge American flag and with the words "In God We Trust" chiselled into the wall above his head, the Pope spoke for just under an hour.

Tens out of thousands gathered outside the Capitol, and the Pope was expected to speak to them after his historic address to Congress.

The Pope made a personal plea to Americans to welcome migrants – a hot-button issue in the 2016 presidential campaign, with some Republican candidates vowing to round up and expel up to 15 million people, mostly Latin Americans, who are unlawfully in the United States

"Millions of people came to this land to pursue their dream of building a future in freedom," said the Pope, the son of Italian immigrants to Argentina, adding it was wrong to be "fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners."

"I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants."

It was another moment when some in Congress rose in applause, but many did not.

"Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War … on this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children?" he asked.

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He also called for "global abolition of the death penalty." The United States, along with Iran and China, is among nations that still impose the death penalty.

The Pope, who is on his first visit to the United States, addressed the joint meeting as a visiting head of state. Purely religious leaders, such as the Dalai Lama, have addressed Congress, but only in auditoriums, not in either of the legislative chambers. Others, like Queen Elizabeth, who is the head of a church as well as sovereign of many nations, have previously addressed joint meetings of Congress.

The Pope, who will fly to New York later Thursday, also urged U.S. lawmakers to take a hard look at arms sales, especially to regimes that use weapons against innocents and civilians.

"Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to unleash deadly suffering?" he asked, before adding his own answer: "Money, money that is often drenched in blood."

But it was the Pope's message about the threat posed to the planet by burning fossil fuels that so irked some Republicans that they were complaining even before it was delivered.

By contrast, President Barack Obama, who welcomed the Pope when he arrived Tuesday from Cuba, and who hosted him Wednesday at the White House, has been basking in the broad support voiced by Francis for his efforts on climate change.

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Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, a Tea Party favourite among the 15 Republicans vying for the party's 2016 presidential nomination, said the Pope should focus on stopping abortions and protecting religious liberty instead of protecting the environment.

"I'm hopeful the Pope will encourage us to stop the killing of one million American babies each year and end the criminalization of Christianity in this country – which Obama can control, instead of global weather patterns, which Obama cannot," Mr. Huckabee said.

At least one Republican was planning to boycott the Pope's address. Arizona Representative Paul Gosar said he would stay away because the Pope should not "prioritize climate change over speaking out against religious intolerance happening across the world."

But Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican and former Catholic choir boy who invited Pope Francis to Congress, said the pontiff's visit was a time to put aside partisan bitterness.

"The Pope transcends all of this," Mr. Boehner said. "He appeals to our better angels and brings us back to our daily obligations. The best thing we can all do is listen, open our hearts to his message and reflect on his example."

In advance of his address, the Pope had given little indication about whether he would wade into some of the most divisive issues.

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"I hope, as a brother of this country, to offer words of encouragement to those called to guide the nation's political future in fidelity to its founding principles," he said.

On Wednesday, he was cheered by jubilant crowds as he visited the White House, paraded around the Ellipse, and spoke to U.S. bishops at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle. The Pope emphasized one of the defining messages of his papacy: to focus less on defending church teaching and more on compassion.

He told the American church leaders that "harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor," and he encouraged them to speak with anyone, no matter their views.

After a private meeting in the Oval Office, Mr. Obama gave the Pope a sculpture of an ascending dove made from metal taken from the Statue of Liberty and wood that once grew in the White House garden.

With files from Reuters and The Associated Press

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