Austrian Bishop Laments Controversy Ignited by Haider Visit

Has Been a Critic of Far-Right Leader´s Populism

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ROME, DEC. 18, 2000 (
Bishop Egon Kapellari of Carinthia, Austria, publicly expressed sadness over the circumstances in which his diocese offered John Paul II the Christmas tree that now graces St. Peter´s Square.

“I am saddened by what happened,” Bishop Kapellari said in an interview published today in the Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera. “We never could have imagined that our Christmas tree would become the pretext for so many arguments and violent confrontations, which have disturbed the peace of the Holy Year´s Christmas.”

The bishop accompanied far-right politician Joerg Haider to the Carinthian delegation´s papal audience on Saturday. Protesters near St. Peter´s Square at one point were dispersed by police using tear gas.

Haider is governor of Carinthia, though he was not in that post when the region agreed three years ago to donate the Christmas 2000 tree to the Vatican.

Prior to the weekend visit to the Vatican, Bishop Kapellari was described by some as a “defender” of Haider. “It is a lie,” the bishop said. “I do not like to get involved in political questions, which do not belong to the mission of a bishop. However, I was one of the first in 1991 who criticized an improvised phrase of Mr. Haider on the organization of work in the Third Reich.”

“Other Austrian bishops have also done so on other occasions,” he added. “Lately, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, archbishop of Vienna, has said that it is necessary to de-militarize the language of debate over immigrants. I share his appeal for more generous acceptance of foreigners.”

To those who accuse Haider of Nazism, the bishop said: “It is not right to demonize Mr. Haider and his party, which at times professes a populism that is open to criticism. However, it is not about Fascism or Nazism. Moreover, Austria is a country with a stable democracy, and we do not have any phenomenon of violent aggression against foreigners or Jews, as happens in other parts of Europe.”

Noting the cry of alarm that rose in Europe against Haider, the bishop observed: “Our history, which links us to a period of Nazi Germany, inspires these fears. The same words that among ourselves are appreciated as nationalist, sounded like Nazism in France or Italy. Mr. Haider should pay attention to the sensitivity of other peoples.”

The bishop described the meeting between the Pope and Haider in these terms: “It unfolded with the same protocol as when I came in 1987, with a Socialist governor, to offer another tree. We greeted the Pope and then went with him to the Clementine Hall, where the delegation awaited us.”

At the end, the delegation received the Pope´s message for the World Day of Peace. In the message, the Pontiff proposes dialogue between cultures and peoples as key to peace and reconciliation. “We must all meditate on this message,” the Austrian bishop concluded.

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