Europe

Pope Benedict: Backs Croatia's EU bid on Zagreb visit

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Media captionThe Pope landed in Zagreb where he said Croatia's place was in Europe

Pope Benedict XVI has given his strong backing to Croatia's bid to join the EU, on his first visit to the nation.

He said he understood fears of a loss of cultural identity from joining the bloc but said Europe needs to be reminded of its Christian roots.

The Pope was warmly welcomed in the staunchly Catholic nation, leading a prayer vigil for thousands in Zagreb.

On Sunday he is to celebrate Mass and visit the tomb of controversial WWII Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac.

There has been criticism of the $6m (£3.6m; 4m euros) cost of the two-day visit but the correspondents say the Vatican has long had a special relationship with Croatia.

'Real humanism'

Pope Benedict said it was "logical, just and necessary" that Croatia join the European Union, given its history.

"From its earliest days, your nation has formed part of Europe, and has contributed in its unique way to the spiritual and moral values that for centuries have shaped the daily lives and the personal and national identity of Europe's sons and daughters," he said after arriving at Zagreb's airport.

Support for EU membership may have flagged among Croats somewhat recently, say analysts, amid anger at the conviction in April by The Hague war crimes tribunal of Gen Ante Gotovina. He commanded Croatian forces during the war for independence from Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.

The Pope acknowledged, in comments to reporters onboard his papal plane, that many in Croatia feared its national identity could be lost within such a large bloc.

He said he understood "a fear of an overly strong centralised bureaucracy", but urged Croatians to make it their "mission" to fight against this.

On Sunday, the Pope is scheduled to pray at the tomb of the controversial Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac, who led Croatia's church during World War II.

The cardinal was accused of collaborating with Croatia's Nazi-allied rulers during the war and was sentenced to 16 years in prison following the war's end.

His role is still disputed. Critics accuse him of failing to oppose the persecution of Serbs and Jews; supporters, though, say he defended Jews against the fascists, and that his trial was punishment for failing to bow the post-war communist authorities.

The Pope praised the cardinal's "real humanism", but he did not say whether he would be proclaimed a saint.

Pope Benedict's predecessor John Paul II put Cardinal Stepinac on the road to sainthood by beatifying him during a 1998 visit, one of three he made to Croatia.

Correction, 9 June 2011:The story has been amended to include the arguments of Cardinal Stepinac's critics and supporters.

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