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The BBC's David Willey in Rome
"The visit had been arranged three years ago"
 real 56k

Governor of Carinthia Joerg Haider
"The Pope knows my position"
 real 28k

Saturday, 16 December, 2000, 22:55 GMT
Rome clashes erupt over Haider visit
Riot police in Via della Conciliazione,
Police fired teargas on leftist protesters in the centre of Rome
Hundreds of protesters marching against the visit of Austrian far-right leader Joerg Haider to the Vatican have clashed with Italian riot police.

Mr Haider, in Rome for the lighting of a Christmas tree given by his home province of Carinthia, stoked the controversy with the latest in a series of apparently anti-Semitic remarks he has made during his political career.

Student protesters say Haider's visit is an offence to Rome
Students say the visit is an offence to Rome
Demonstrators threw bricks and cobblestones and police responded with tear gas and beat many demonstrators to the ground with batons, witnesses said.

They had been trying to force their way down the avenue leading to St Peter's Square, where the Austrian Christmas tree is standing under heavy police.

But their path was blocked by police vans, while police formed a phalanx with shields and batons and charged the demonstrators. One person was injured in the clashes.

Wojtyla (the Pope), your tree drips with blood

Protesters' banner
The confrontation took place about 500 metres from the square, but the ceremony went ahead undisturbed, with the Austrian populist sitting in a place of honour near the tree.

Pope John Paul II did not attend the tree-lighting ceremony, but earlier in the day Mr Haider had a private audience with him.

Controversial remark

Mr Haider's visit has provoked protests by politicians, the Jewish community, wartime deportees and students.

Rome's Jewish shopkeepers switched their lights off when the Christmas tree's lights were switched on.

The response of the Roman shopkeepers is both dignified and appropriate and Haider's revolting response is precisely what one would expect

Lord Janner, World Jewish Congress
Mr Haider's response, quoted by the Italian news agency Ansa, was to say: "If they want to save electricity, let them do it."

Vice-President of the World Jewish Congress Lord Janner said the Jewish protest was "both dignified and appropriate" while Mr Haider's "revolting response" was precisely what was expected of him.

"It is immensley sad that such a great Pope would lower himself by meeting this international pariah," he added.

Papal audience

Mr Haider's audience with the Pope was over in three minutes.

Haider and the Pope
Haider presents the Pope with a certificate for the Christmas tree
The Pope gave him a copy of his New Year message warning against nationalism, racism and xenophobia, but Mr Haider had no time to deliver his pre-prepared remarks.

The Vatican accepted the offer of a Christmas tree in 1997, when Mr Haider was not governor of Carinthia.

Mr Haider resigned as head of Austria's far-right Freedom Party after the party's success at last year's general election earned it a place in the governing coalition.

He is notorious for making remarks apparently sympathetic to the policies of Nazi Germany, and for xenophobic views on immigration.

Immigrants must always be treated with the respect due to the dignity of every human person

Papal message
Protesters in Rome on Saturday said his visit was "a provocation and an offence to the city's history".

The Vatican has defended the meeting on the grounds that the Holy See is open to all.

The Vatican's number two, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, told the La Repubblica newspaper: "We must make a difference between an error and one who errs."

Vatican uneasy

BBC Rome correspondent David Willey says the Vatican is clearly embarrassed at the political row that has broken out over the Haider visit.

However, the officials insist that timing of the release of the anti-xenophobia message was coincidental.

Tree at St Peters
The Carinthian tree is under police guard
The controversy over Mr Haider's visit has been sharpened by a row over remarks he made earlier this week criticising the Italian Government as "overly generous" on immigration.

Prime Minister Giuliano Amato said on Friday he would write to Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel to express his government's displeasure at Mr Haider's criticism of President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi and Italy's policies on immigration.

"The government cannot but judge extremely severely such criticisms, which are even more unacceptable coming from someone who holds an official position in another European Union country," Mr Amato said.

Mr Haider had said that Austria should reconsider its membership of the EU's open-borders Schengen agreement because of Italy's stance.

The Italian president responded by explaining that Italy had always been a country of migration and was a humane society.

Then, in an interview with Italy's Corriere della Sera newspaper, the Austrian populist said President Ciampi's response was typical of a left-wing politician.

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See also:

21 Sep 00 | Europe
Austrian minister survives vote
01 May 00 | Europe
Austria's Haider bows out
07 Nov 00 | Europe
Austria's Freedom Party in crisis
04 Dec 00 | Europe
Setback for Austrian right wing
17 Dec 00 | Europe
In pictures: Haider storm in Rome
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