Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Croatia hails pope's upcoming visit as boost to its EU bid

Croatia has hailed Pope Benedict XVI's upcoming visit as a sign of the Vatican's support to the country's bid to join the European Union.

The pope is due to arrive on June 4 for a two-day visit to Croatia, his first to the country since being elected pontiff in 2005.

"Apart from its extreme importance for Croatian believers, the visit is also very important for all citizens and the whole country," Foreign Minister Gordan Jandrokovic told journalists.

He emphasized the "importance of the moment in which the Holy Father visits Croatia."

"His visit comes as the end of Croatia's EU accession talks is nearing.

"The Holy See is sending a clear (message of) support: We want Croatia in the EU, we want that you become an EU member as soon as possible," the minister added.

Croatia is hoping to conclude EU accession talks by the end of June and thus become the 27-nation bloc's next member by January 2013.

The pope is to stay in Zagreb for the national gathering of Croatian Catholic families and will also hold a prayer at the grave of beatified Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac.

Stepinac, who headed Croatia's Catholic Church during World War II, was beatified by John Paul II during his 1998 stay in Croatia.

The move caused controversy as critics claimed he did not stand up against persecution of Serbs and Jews by the country's World War II pro-Nazi regime.

After the war, Stepinac was detained by the communist authorities and died while under house arrest in 1960 after serving five years of a 16-year jail term for alleged collaboration with the pro-Nazi government.

Almost 90 percent of Croatia's population of 4.4 million are Roman Catholics, and the Church has considerable influence in many segments of society.

Ties between Croatia and Vatican are strong, and the latter was among the the first to recognise Croatia's independence from the former Yugoslavia, that sparked the 1991-1995 war. 

John Paul II visited Croatia three times in 1994, 1998 and 2003.