Pope Francis has called for the global abolition of the death penalty in his address to a joint meeting of the US Congress in a first for the leader of the Catholic church.

"The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development," Francis said in his speech to the Congress.

"This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty. I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred."


Full text of Pope Francis' speech to US Congress


The 78-year-old Argentine pope also addressed the issue of immigration, which has sharply divided politicians in the US, with many Republicans advocating anti-immigration policies.

"We are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners. I say this to you as a son of immigrants," the 78-year-old Argentine pope said on Thursday, addressing the issue of immigration that has divided 

"Building a nation calls us to recognise that we must constantly relate to others, rejecting a mindset of hostility in order to adopt one of reciprocal subsidiarity," Francis said.

Referencing the refugee crisis in Europe as well as the United States' own struggle with immigration from Latin America, Francis summoned politicians "to respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal."

"We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best as we can to their situation," Francis urged.

Vigilance against fundamentalism

He also called for global vigilance against fundamentalism of all kinds, but warned a "delicate balance" must be struck between fighting extremism and preserving religious freedoms.

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"We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism. This means that we must be especially attentive to every type of fundamentalism, whether religious or of any other kind," the pope told the Congress.

"A delicate balance is required to combat violence perpetrated in the name of a religion, an ideology or an economic system, while also safeguarding religious freedom, intellectual freedom and individual freedoms."

On Thursday, security was tight outside Capitol Hill, with streets blocked off and a heavy police presence that rivalled an inauguration or State of the Union address by the US president.

Later on Thursday, he will join homeless people in Washington for lunch, before leaving for New York for more prayer services and a speech to the United Nations.

For Francis, it has been a whirlwind three-day visit to Washington, the first stop on his three-city US tour.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies