Italy-Austria Dispute Looms as Pope Readies for Haider

Security Tightened Around Vatican

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ROME, DEC. 15, 2000 (
A diplomatic dispute threatened to break out between Italy and Austria as accusations and protests mounted over Saturday´s planned meeting between John Paul II and Austrian far-right leader Joerg Haider.

Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato said he would be writing personally to Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel to express his government´s displeasure at comments made by Haider criticizing Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi and the country´s policies on immigration, Reuters reported.

Haider resigned earlier this year as head of the far-right Freedom Party, which is a member of Austria´s coalition government, but he is governor of the province of Carinthia.

The populist Haider, no stranger to provoking political debate, this week criticized Italy for being soft on immigration and said that as a consequence Austria should reconsider membership of the EU´s open-borders Schengen agreement.

The Pope is due to meet Haider on Saturday morning with a delegation from Carinthia, which has this year presented the Vatican with the traditional Christmas tree for St Peter´s Square. The 80-foot (25 meter) tree has already been erected and is under 24-hour police guard.

The meeting has sparked fury among Jews, leftist politicians, World War II partisans and homosexual groups who accuse Haider of racism and xenophobia, Reuters noted. Haider has made controversial remarks about the Nazi era and once praised Adolf Hitler´s employment policies in the 1930s, but he has since apologized.

The Vatican said on Thursday the meeting was not meant as a political blessing and hinted strongly the Pontiff would use the occasion to restate his views on respect for human rights, Reuters said. Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the Pope uses such «pastoral visits´´ «to speak freely.´´

That comment was understood to mean the Pope, who lived through the Nazi era in his native Poland, may refer to issues such as minority and racial rights over which Haider and his anti-immigrant party have been roundly criticized.

More than 3,000 protesters, including nearly 50 Italian politicians, took to the streets of ancient Rome on Thursday night brandishing anti-Haider placards and denouncing the Austrian´s presence in the Italian capital.

Demonstrations were also planned around Rome and near the Vatican on Saturday. Leftist groups say they will try to erect a 6-by-4 meter banner depicting the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz to block the view of the tree, Reuters said.

Right-wing and neo-fascist groups have said they will stage counterprotests. Italian military police on Friday removed cars and rubbish bins from along the main road leading to St Peter´s Square and have tightened security around the Vatican, according to Reuters.

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