Haider arrives for much-criticized papal visit, met with angry blast from Italy

ROME - Widely criticized for his anti-immigrant views, Joerg Haider arrived Friday for a much-opposed meeting with Pope John Paul II proclaiming that he and the pope saw eye-to-eye on the immigration issue.

Italy's government quickly made clear how unwelcome the far-right Austrian politician was here, denouncing as ''unacceptable'' Haider's earlier remarks accompanying criticism of what he called Italy's too-lax immigration policies.

Haider took rooms in a hotel near St. Peter's Square, where Saturday he is to lead a 250-member Austrian delegation presenting a Christmas tree to John Paul.

He emerged smiling at evening for a shopping trip - and an impromptu curbside news conference.

''I am a politician and must take care only of one country, he isn't a politician, and must take care of the world,'' he told members of the news media crowding around him, saying he wasn't worried about Saturday's audience. ''Anyway, on immigration I am in accord with the pontiff.''

In an interview published Thursday in the Milan newspaper Corriere della Sera, Haider suggested that the Vatican shared his concern over the entrance of Muslim immigrants in predominantly Christian Europe.

The pope has consistently called for equal and fair treatment of immigrants regardless of their religion. John Paul took up the issue again Thursday, saying a ''cultural equilibrium'' was required combining openness to minorities while fostering a common heritage.

Jewish groups, the Israeli government and leftist politicians have protested the Vatican audience.

A statement from Premier Giuliano Amato's office condemned comments made by Haider earlier in the week about President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi as ''unacceptable.''

Haider had drawn criticism from Ciampi and other politicians when he accused Italy of lax controls on illegal immigration.

Haider, in turn, dismissed Ciampi's response in a newspaper interview as ''the normal reaction of a leftist politician to statements by a center-right politician.'' It was that statement that apparently drew Friday's protest by the Italian government, which said it planned to complain to Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel.

Defending its decision to go ahead with the audience, the Vatican noted that the pope traditionally receives such groups and considers them ''pastoral'' meetings. ''This gives Roman pontiffs full liberty to call the parties' attention to the respect for human and Christian values,'' it said, suggesting that John Paul may criticize Haider's positions.

The tree, which will go in St. Peter's Square, was donated by Austria's Carinthia region, where Haider is governor. The Vatican has said the tree was offered in 1997, before Haider became governor.

Other European Union members, worried about Haider's anti-immigrant views, imposed diplomatic sanctions on Austria when his Freedom Party entered Austria's government, lifting them only in September.

The Vatican said reporters would not be allowed into Saturday's meeting because audiences are normally not open for coverage. Last year's Christmas tree presentation was open to the press because the delegation was led by a head of state, President Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic, the Vatican said.

Haider's visit was having repercussions in the campaign for spring's national elections.

Umberto Bossi, head of the autonomy-seeking Northern League, endorsed Haider's claim that Italy was failing to curb illegal immigration and criticized Ciampi for his attack on the Austrian.

Bossi is a political ally of media magnate Silvio Berlusconi, who is leading the center-right in a bid to sweep the center-left from power.


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