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Bernie Sanders and Pope Francis: fans of Earth, equality, and each other

The presidential hopeful will attend a Vatican City conference on environmental and social issues, thanks to an invitation from the Vatican.

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    Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont speaks during a campaign stop in Pennsylvania. Senator Sanders has accepted the pope's invitation to attend a conference at the Vatican.
    (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
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Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and the pope aren't as unlikely a pairing as you would think. The Sanders campaign announced Friday that Sanders will accept an invitation from the Vatican to attend a Vatican conference on environmental and social issues, one more thorn in the side of US Republicans wary of the pope's frequently liberal political stances. 

Vermont's Senator Sanders (I) was "excited, of course, to get the invitation," his adviser and fellow conference attendee Columbia University professor Jeffrey Sachs told the Associated Press. 

It's not clear if the Democratic presidential contender and Pope Francis will meet in person during the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences' event April 15 and 16. 

"I am delighted to have been invited by the Vatican to a meeting on restoring social justice and environmental sustainability to the world economy," Sanders said in a statement. "Pope Francis has made clear that we must overcome 'the globalization of indifference' in order to reduce economic inequalities, stop financial corruption and protect the natural environment. That is our challenge in the United States and in the world."

Sanders will take a break from campaigning in New York in order to attend the conference, which typically covers a wide range of social and economic issues. He will take off for Vatican City immediately after an April 14 debate with Hillary Clinton, ahead of the state's primary on April 19. 

"The moral imperative that [the pope] is bringing to this discussion is absolutely extraordinary and absolutely what the world needs. These are issues that I have been dealing with for years," Sanders, who is Jewish, told the AP.

"On economic issues, on issues of poverty and income and wealth inequality, the issues of making sure we address the needs of the poorest people of this planet, this is something that the pope and I are very much on the same page," he said. 

But while the pope’s positions on economic and social issues may have endeared him to Sanders, his track record has not held the same influence with many conservative Republicans. In June 2015 the pope published the first papal encyclical on climate change, framing the issue as a moral rather than political challenge, leading former Pennsylvania governor Rick Santorum to criticize the pope for getting involved in the scientific debate. Other Republicans who have opposed funding for environmental efforts have also been angered, accusing the Catholic church of becoming involved in matters beyond its realm.  

Francis's open-air mass at the US-Mexican border in February also provoked criticism from some who felt his gestures and comments about immigration are too political. 

The Rev. Thomas Reese, an analyst with the National Catholic Reporter, said that while it was unusual for a US presidential candidate to be called away from campaigning to attend the conference, the invitation should not be seen as an endorsement from the pope.  

"Certainly the last thing Pope Francis wants to do is get involved in American presidential politics. He's made clear that he doesn't even want to interfere in Italian politics," Father Reese told AP.

The pope has a history of meeting with many figures on both sides of the political aisle. At the end of his visit to Washington in September 2015, Pope Francis briefly met with Kim Davis, the controversial county clerk who was briefly jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Later reports suggested that Francis himself was surprised by the visit, which was arranged by an archbishop

This report includes material from The Associated Press.

[Editor's Note: This article has been updated to verify where the invitation came from.]

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