President Obama with Pope Francis at the Vatican.

President Obama with Pope Francis at the Vatican.

The upcoming visit to Israel by Pope Francis has been thrown into doubt due to the ongoing Foreign Ministry strike.

Top  Catholic clergyman Fouad Twal warned on Thursday that the trip, the first to the country by  Francis since he became pope a year ago, may be removed from the itinerary.

However, he added that planned stops in Jordan and the West Bank during the May 24 to 26 visit will not be affected.

He said: “If the strike will go two months, I don’t think that we can make the visit to Israel. But for sure the visit will be done in Jordan and Palestine.”

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama called himself a “great admirer” of Pope Francis as he sat down at the Vatican with the pontiff he considers a kindred spirit on issues of economic inequality.

Their nearly hour-long first meeting came as Mr Obama’s administration remains deeply split with the church over abortion and contraception.

Mr Obama arrived at the Vatican amid the pomp and tradition of the Catholic Church, making his way to greet the pope after a long, slow procession through the hallways of the Apostolic Palace led by colourful Swiss Guards and accompanied by ceremonial attendants.

The president bowed as he shook hands with the pontiff in the Small Throne Room, before the two sat down at a wooden table in the Papal Library.

“It is a great honour. I’m a great admirer,” Mr Obama said. “Thank you so much for receiving me.”

The two were scheduled to meet for just half an hour, but their private discussion lasted 52 minutes.

Mr Obama seemed buoyed by the meeting as they emerged and the pope greeted a handful of Mr Obama’s senior advisers. Mr Obama’s Catholic secretary of state, John Kerry, pronounced himself “a great admirer of everything you’ve been doing, as a Catholic, for the church”.

After leaving the Vatican at midday, Mr Obama made his way to Rome’s Quirinal Palace for meetings and a working lunch with Italian president Giorgio Napolitano.

Mr Obama is the ninth president to make an official visit to the Vatican. His audience marks a change of pace for the president, who has devoted the past three days of a week-long, four-country trip to securing European unity against Russia’s aggressive posture toward Ukraine.