WASHINGTON • A United States county clerk who refused in the name of her faith to issue marriage licences to same-sex couples said she secretly met Pope Francis during his US visit, and that he urged her to "stay strong".
Ms Kim Davis, a born-again Christian, told broadcaster ABC on Wednesday she met the pontiff on Sept 24 while he was in Washington after receiving a surprise phone call from a Vatican official.
In Rome, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi confirmed the encounter with the Kentucky clerk, but declined to comment further.
Ms Davis has become a heroine to US same-sex marriage opponents, after she was jailed for six days for refusing to issue licences for gay marriages, which the US Supreme Court legalised nationwide in June.
The episode added a new dimension to a US tour in which the Pope drew rapturous throngs and surprised admiration from liberal Americans thrilled to hear a Pope stake out left-leaning positions on poverty, the environment and immigration. Suddenly on Wednesday, religious conservatives were cheering. They had spent a week watching, with some chagrin, the Pope's reluctance to engage directly in their culture-war battles over same-sex marriage, abortion rights and religious liberty.
Pope Francis had urged US bishops to avoid "harsh and divisive" language.
But now, the conservatives were taking heart, putting the Davis visit together with the Pope's subtle speech on religious freedom last Saturday and his unscheduled stop in Washington to see the Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of nuns that is suing the federal government over the Affordable Care Act's contraception mandate.
"The news is consistent with what the Pope said, consistently, in his various addresses and appearances," said Mr Richard Garnett, an associate dean and a professor at Notre Dame Law School.
Liberal Catholic commentators were left asking whether the Pope had been trying to make a statement about religious liberty or same-sex marriage by meeting Ms Davis and, if so, why the meeting had been kept secret. Some called it a mistake.
"The news that Pope Francis met privately in Washington, DC, with Kim Davis throws a wet blanket on the goodwill that the pontiff had garnered during his US visit last week," said Mr Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, an advocacy group for gay Catholics.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NEW YORK TIMES