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  |   March 14, 2013 at 8:05 AM
Pope Francis visits basilica

VATICAN CITY, March 14 (UPI) -- Pope Francis began his first full day as leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics Thursday with a visit to the Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica in Rome.

The Rev. Ludovico Melo, a priest who prayed with the pope, said the new pontiff spent about a half-hour at the basilica, which included singing a hymn and spoke to people in the church to go to confession, ANSA reported.

"Mercy, mercy, mercy," the Argentine pope said, according to Melo.

Pope Francis, who was the first South American pope elected Wednesday after five votes at the conclave, also prayed before a famous icon of the Virgin Mary called the Salus Populi Romani, ANSA said.

New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who participated in the conclave, said Pope Francis was to travel to the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo outside Rome Thursday to meet his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who resigned at the end of February, citing health and age.


Obama: Fiscal priority growth, not deficit

WASHINGTON, March 14 (UPI) -- U.S. President Obama said his priority was averting an economic slowdown, not balancing the budget in 10 years, House Republicans said after meeting with him.

"Our biggest problems in the next 10 years are not deficits," several Republicans told The New York Times the president said, bluntly rejecting a key GOP idea outlined in the Republican budget proposed this week. The budget plan promises to eliminate the federal deficit in 10 years through steep spending cuts and reforms to entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare.

"The president tactfully said: 'That's not my priority,'" Rep. Mike D. Rogers, R-Ala., told The Hill, explaining Obama said the Republican focus on debt reduction risked "slowing the recovery down and [hurting] the long-term economic health of the country."

Obama spoke about balancing the budget "in principle," lawmakers said, meaning eliminating all deficits except for payments of interest on the debt.

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., told The Hill balancing the budget in principle was like "telling a family that your budget balances without counting the interest on your credit-card debt or your mortgage."


Pakistani hostages in Bahrain sent home

ISLAMABAD, March 14 (UPI) -- Officials said at least 450 Pakistanis who were sent to Bahrain to join its army were sent back home after allegedly being kept as hostages for 19 months.

The young men, all university graduates, were promised a job in the army with a salary of $1,844 per year, The Express Tribune said.

But the army took the men hostage and tortured them, one of the deportees said.

The men were not given food and did not have access to toilets for five days, The Express Tribune reported.

Bahrain is expected to deport 100 more Pakistanis Friday.

The young men have urged the United Nations to take notice of the incident, The Express Tribune said.


Chavez embalming hits a snag

CARACAS, Venezuela, March 14 (UPI) -- After hitting a snag, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's body may not be embalmed and put on permanent display as planned, acting President Nicolas Maduro said.

Maduro provided no specific details, but said Wednesday scientists determined the process could be "quite difficult."

"The decision should have been taken much earlier," he said.

"More than your physical body, we have the commander in eternal memory, especially this generation who heard it, touched it, saw him," Maduro told the audience at the Book Fair of Venezuela. "We have to keep alive his image, his voice, his thinking."

Chavez, 58, died earlier this month from cancer and officials had planned to have his body eternally on display like that of former revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin of Russia, CNN reported Thursday.


Passengers report problems aboard liner

DORAL, Fla., March 14 (UPI) -- Passengers aboard a Carnival Cruise Line ship reported problems such as overflowing toilets and power outages while the ship was docked at a Caribbean port.

Passengers emailed CNN Thursday to report problems aboard Carnival Dream while it was docked at Philipsburg on St. Maarten in the eastern Caribbean Sea.

"We are not allowed off of the boat despite the fact that we have no way to use the restrooms on board," passenger Jonathan Evans wrote in an email to CNN. "The cruise director is giving passengers very limited information and tons of empty promises. What was supposed to take a hour has turned into 7+ hours."

Gregg Stark, a passenger traveling with his family, relayed a similar story, emailing that there was "human waste all over the floor in some of the bathrooms and they're overflowing -- and in the state rooms. The elevators have not been working. ..."

Carnival representative Vance Gulliksen said late Wednesday he wasn't aware of problems aboard the Dream and subsequent calls to the cruise line went unanswered, CNN said.

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