The Vatican defended itself today against increasing criticism over a meeting planned next week between John Paul II and Austrian far-right leader Jörg Haider, saying the Church was open to everyone.
Haider, still a dominant force in Austria´s rightist Freedom Party (FPOE) despite resigning as its leader in May, is due to meet the Pope on Dec. 16 to present him with a Christmas tree from the Austrian province of Carinthia where he is governor. It was his province´s turn this year to provide a tree which will go next to the Nativity scene in St. Peter´s Square. Last year the tree came from the Czech Republic.
"I don´t believe the Italian people, who love freedom and are educated in the great traditions of hospitality and openness, would be opposed (to this),´´ Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano told a Church conference. "The Holy See is open to everyone -- no one should be surprised by that."
Haider is best known abroad for controversial remarks he made about the Nazi period for which he later apologized. When his party was made part of a coalition government in February, the European Union imposed sanctions against Austria. These were scrapped in September.
The planned meeting between Haider and the 80-year-old Pontiff has already sparked widespread outrage, with Israel last month declaring it a "considerable disappointment´´ and Italian leftists planning demonstrations.
But Cardinal Sodano said it was not for the Church to judge Haider, a Catholic, even if it didn´t agree with his views. "During (World War Two), the Holy See did not officially have relations with countries like the United States, Britain or Japan, but representatives from those countries were still welcomed if they came,´´ he said.
Still, Italian leftists, including government ministers, said last month Haider would not be welcome if he comes to Rome. Oliviero Diliberto, secretary of the Party of Italian Communists and the minister of public works, World War Two resistance fighters and the president of Rome´s Jewish community, signed a protest against Haider´s visit.
Rome-based trade unionists have urged all workplaces and Rome city council buildings to switch off their Christmas lights Dec. 16 to protest the Haider visit.