A Kentucky county clerk jailed earlier this month for refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples on religious grounds was invited to meet with the pope during his visit to the US last week, Vatican officials have confirmed.

Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis and her husband say they were invited to meet with His Holiness on Thursday in Washington DC, where Pope Francis praised her for having the “courage” to stand by her religious convictions.

“I do not deny that the meeting took place, but I have no comment to add,” a Vatican spokesman said, according to Reuters.

Davis was surprised at being invited to meet with the Holy See, and claims he “encouraged” her to “stay strong.”

“I never thought I would meet the pope,” said Davis.

“It was really very humbling to even think that he would want to, you know, meet me or know me,” Davis said. “I put my hand out, and he grabbed it, and I hugged him, and he hugged me and he said, ‘Thank you for your courage’.”

“He told me before he left, he said, ‘Stay strong.’ That was a great encouragement.”

Pope Francis, who has been widely criticized by the right for ignoring the attack on the family and traditional gender roles, made it clear during a visit with Catholic bishops last week that the “cause of life and that of the family” was “the primary reason for my present visit.”

On Monday, the pope also surprised reporters when he expressed support for Davis during a press conference on the papal plane, saying he felt government workers have a “human right” to deny orders on the grounds of “conscientious objection.”

“I can’t have in mind all the cases that can exist about conscientious objection … but yes, I can say that conscientious objection is a right that is a part of every human right. It is a right. And if a person does not allow others to be a conscientious objector, he denies a right,” Francis said.

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