Donald Trump announces meeting with Pope Francis in Italy before it is finalized

David Smith in Washington
Former president Barack Obama meets with Pope Francis during the pontiff’s first visit to the US in 2015. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Donald Trump has signalled that he expects to meet Pope Francis, with whom he has clashed in the past, when he travels to Italy next month.

The US president will be in Italy late May for a meeting of the G7 industrialised democracies. An audience with the pontiff would bring together two wildly contrasting world views.

“I look very much forward to meeting the pope,” said on Thursday in a joint press conference at the White House with Italian prime minister Paolo Gentiloni.

Minutes later Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, admitted that the meeting has not yet been confirmed. Trump’s assertion now risks making a non-meeting look like a snub.

Trump and the pope fell out in February last year after the Republican candidate had pledged to build a wall on the US-Mexican border. The head of the Catholic church said: “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.”

Trump responded that he was “proud to be a Christian” and described the pope’s comments as “disgraceful”. If the Vatican is attacked by Islamic State, he added, the pontiff would have prayed Trump was president to prevent it.

Pope Francis called for greater compassion for refugees less than a week after Trump tried to impose a travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries. Last month the Vatican also urged Trump to listen to “dissenting voices” and reconsider his position on climate change.

On Thursday Trump was positive about the prospect of visiting Sicily and acknowledged Italy’s artistic and scientific achievements. “From Venice to Florence, from Verdi to Pavarotti – a friend of mine, great friend of mine,” he ad libbed.

The widow of Luciano Pavarotti, who died a decade ago, objected to Trump’s use of the operatic tenor’s version of “Nessun Dorma” at campaign rallies, writing: “The values of brotherhood and solidarity that Luciano Pavarotti upheld throughout his artistic career are incompatible with the world vision of the candidate Donald Trump.”

Trump also said a strong Europe was “very, very important” to the US, condemned Iran for doing “a tremendous disservice” to the nuclear agreement and expressed confidence that China was working hard to rein in North Korea. “We don’t know whether or not they’re able to do that, but I have absolute confidence that he will be trying very, very hard,” he said.

Contradicting earlier official statements, the president acknowledged that he has conflated diplomacy with trade in talks with Chinese president Xi Jinping. “I actually told him, I said, ‘You’ll make a much better deal on trade if you get rid of this menace or do something about the menace of North Korea.’ Because that’s what it is.”

Trump gave a confusing answer on America’s plans for Libya, which sank into chaos after the US-backed overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. “I do not see a role in Libya,” he told reporters in the east room. “I think the United States has, right now, enough roles. We’re in a role everywhere, so I do not see that.

“I do see a role in getting rid of Isis. We’re being very effective in that regard ... We are effectively ridding the world of Isis. I see that as a primary role and that is what we’re going to do, whether it’s in Iraq or Libya or anywhere else. And that role will come to an end at a certain point and we’ll be able to go back and rebuild our country, which is what I want to do.”