Vatican tries to put Haider´s visit in context

Austrian´s Presence Protested; Gift Tree Was Decided On 3 Years Ago

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VATICAN CITY, DEC. 17, 2000 (
Answering critics of the visit by Austrian Joerg Haider this weekend, the Vatican said it does not make ideological distinctions among delegations that come to Rome.

Police on Saturday fired tear gas on protesters not far from St. Peter´s Square. On that day John Paul II held a meeting with the right-wing politician, now governor of the state of Carinthia, who is known for anti-immigrant views and past praise for some Nazi policies.

The confrontation occurred when thousands of leftists tried to push their way up an avenue leading to the square, where a Christmas tree given to the Vatican by a delegation led by Haider, was being lit, the Associated Press reported. Some protesters fired Roman candles at police, who in turn fired volleys of tear gas to keep them at bay about 500 yards from the square, AP said.

The Pope did not attend the tree-lighting ceremony, AP said.

Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano tried to put Haider´s visit in context. During an interview the cardinal explained that a «distinction must be made between the error and the one who errs. (…) Carinthia is a great region of profound religiosity.

«A delegation arrived with the bishop and governor. The mayor of Klagenfurt has come, there are academic authorities as well as numerous local representatives. Let´s remember how peacefully tendencies of all kind have passed through Rome. I witnessed with profound edification how Romans honored parliamentarians of all parties, tendencies, chiefs of state of all formations, who came to the Vatican during the Jubilee of Parliamentarians and Politicians.»

In the past the Vatican has also received Chile´s Augusto Pinochet and Cuba´s Fidel Castro.

On Thursday, the day Haider arrived in Rome, the Holy Father presented a document condemning xenophobia and racism, which the Pope noted can result from «narrowness of spirit» of the one who cultivates «the sense of belonging with overtones of self-exaltation and exclusion of differences.»

The Holy Father took advantage of a brief meeting Saturday with Carinthia´s 250-person delegation, which included Haider and Bishop Egon Kapellari, to highlight the spiritual message of Christmas. His address was laced with references to the profound symbolism of Christmas, especially the tree.

«I loved trees in my homeland,» the Pontiff said. Seeing the tree in St. Peter´s Square reminded him of the words of a poet who regards trees as emulators of preachers, bearers of a «profound message.»

«They do not preach doctrines and recipes, but proclaim the fundamental law of life,» the Holy Father said. With its seasonal changes, the Pope added, a tree expresses the mystery of life «in the flowering of spring, the maturity of summer, the fruits of autumn, and the dying of winter.»

«Because of this, since ancient times men have used the image of the tree to reflect on the principal questions of life,» John Paul II said.

Carinthia donated the 33-meter fir tree which stands near the huge Nativity scene in St. Peter´s Square. The Pope mentioned in his address that Carinthia announced the gift three years ago, before Haider became governor.

The symbols of the crib and Christmas tree together were a source of inspiration for the Holy Father. He said that the custom of placing the tree and crib near one another, alludes to paradise, the tree of life, next to the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

It reminds one of Adam´s creation, and of Christ, the New Adam, whose life is enclosed by the crib and cross, the Pope said. Therefore, tree and birth are symbols that virtually synthesize in themselves the history of salvation, he added.

«Death came from the tree of paradise, life resurrected from the tree of the Cross. Thus the tree belongs to the birth, alluding to the Cross, the tree of life,» John Paul II concluded.

At the end of the audience held in the Clementine Hall, the delegates were given copies of the Pope´s message for the forthcoming World Day of Peace. In the message, published Thursday with the motto, «Dialogue Between Cultures for a Civilization of Love and Peace,» there is an appeal for the acceptance of immigrants and rejection of xenophobia.

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