Protesters Riot at Vatican City Pope Has Audience with Austria's Haider
VATICAN CITY -- Police fired tear gas at protestors outside St. Peter's Square yesterday after Pope John Paul II held a much criticized meeting with an Austrian right-wing politician known for anti-immigrant views and past praise for some Nazi policies.
The confrontation took place when several thousand 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 the politician, Joerg Haider, was being lit.
Some protesters fired Roman candles at police. Police fired volleys of tear gas to hold them at bay about 500 yards from the square. The lighting ceremony went ahead undisturbed, with Haider sitting in a place of honor near the tree.
Pope John Paul II did not attend the tree-lighting ceremony, but earlier in the day Haider and his 250-person delegation from the Carinthia region, where Haider is governor, had an audience with the pope.
Security was intense for Haider's visit, which provoked a storm of protest from the Israeli government, Jewish organizations and leftist politicians.
The pope met with Haider and an Austrian bishop for several minutes before he addressed the full delegation, the Vatican said.
Haider said he received a "warm welcome" from the pope. The Vatican had suggested the pontiff might criticize Haider's positions, but Haider said there was no political discussion.
"We spoke about personal things. We spoke about issues which concern the world. I think the holy father wants to make clear that he is really happy to have us here," Haider said.
In brief remarks, John Paul spoke of the spiritual message of Christmas trees. His only reference to the controversy was to note that Austria's Carinthia region announced the gift three years ago, before Haider became governor.
Asked about plans by Jewish shopkeepers to turn off their lights as a sign of protest, Haider was quoted by the Italian news agency ANSA as saying, "If they want to save electricity, let them do it. …