Zagreb: Pope Benedict XVI gave strong backing to Croatia`s bid to join the European Union as he arrived in the Balkan nation on Saturday, but said he understands those who fear the EU`s "overly strong centralized bureaucracy."
The pontiff also expressed the Vatican`s long-running concern that Europe needs to be reminded of its Christian roots.
Benedict was beginning his first trip as pope to Croatia, a deeply Roman Catholic country that his predecessor visited three times during and after the bloody Balkan wars of the 1990s. Benedict is spending the weekend to mark the Croatian church`s national family day, but his visit is also a boost to the conservative government`s efforts to finalize EU accession negotiations.
Croatia is expected to learn this month or next if negotiations to join the 27-member EU bloc can be concluded, with membership expected in 2012 or 2013. The yearslong process has soured many Croatians on the EU, as has the recent sentence handed down by the Hague tribunal against a Croatian general convicted of war crimes but considered a hero at home.
The Vatican and Croatia, which is 89.8-percent Catholic, have long had solid ties: The Holy See was one of the first to recognize Croatia when it declared independence from Serb-led Yugoslavia in 1991, and the Vatican is eager to have another stalwart Catholic country in the EU bloc.
Benedict said it was "logical, just and necessary" that Croatia join the EU given Croatia`s history and culture is so strongly rooted in that of Europe.
"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," Benedict said upon arrival at Zagreb`s airport.
But he acknowledged in comments to reporters aboard the papal plane that a certain fear or skepticism of joining the EU is understandable given Croatia is a small country entering into a large, already-formed bloc with values that long ago strayed from Europe`s Christian heritage.
"One can understand there is perhaps a fear of an overly strong centralized bureaucracy and a rationalistic culture that doesn`t sufficiently take into account the history — the richness of history and the richness of the diverse history" that Croatia offers, he said.
He urged Croatians to make as their "mission" the fight against this and reintroduce into the EU the "richness of diverse cultures" that Christianity represents.
"There is a need for convinced witness and active dynamism aimed at promoting the fundamental moral values that underpin social living and the identity of the old continent," Benedict said.
Croatian President Ivo Josipovic, who greeted Benedict at the airport, concurred, saying Europe wouldn`t be unified were it not for the deeply Christian values of forgiveness and reconciliation that Croatia seeks to embody.
"The unification of Europe is basically a Christian project," Josipovic said, as a military parade and Croatians in traditional dress greeted the pontiff on the tarmac. "It is precisely because of these deep Christian roots of the Croatian people that I am convinced that our citizens will support in the vast majority our accession into the European Union."
But Benedict`s trip comes at a time when some Croatians have grown weary of the demands required to join the EU and have soured on the project. Official polls say only about 50 percent of Croats favor membership.
The anti-EU sentiment grew in April after the Hague tribunal sentenced wartime Gen. Ante Gotovina, to 24 years in prison for his role in a 1995 military offensive intended to drive Serb rebels out of land they had occupied for years along Croatia`s southern border with Bosnia.
Gotovina is revered by many Croats for his role in the battle that sealed Croatia`s independence from Serb-led Yugoslavia after four years of conflict. Analysts have said that while the anger at the sentence was real, it was temporary, and that the greater problem is a weariness and frustration that Europe has given the cold shoulder to Croatia throughout the negotiation process.
"It`s that proverbial carrot that seems to be constantly out of reach," said Ivo Banac, emeritus professor of history at Yale University and a Croat. "It`s there, you`re following it, but you can never manage to bite it."
Like many countries Benedict has visited recently amid the global economic downturn, there is also discontent in Croatia about the estimated euro2 million ($2.9 million) cost of the visit for a country strapped by one of its worst economic crises. Protests were planned for Saturday and Sunday, unusual for this country that welcomed Pope John Paul II without opposition during his three visits.
The human rights organization David, which is leading the protests, says the government is irresponsibly "squandering the money of impoverished people on an individual." It is also protesting the sex abuse scandals that gripped the church in Europe.
Some opposition politicians also objected, saying Benedict was being manipulated by the governing HDZ party, which has made EU membership its priority ahead of national elections later this year or early in 2012.
After meeting with top Croatian leaders Saturday, the pope was to address Croatian politicians, academics and businessmen before meeting with young people in a central Zagreb square for a prayer vigil. On Sunday, he will celebrate Mass to mark the Croatian national family day and then will pray before the tomb of Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac, Croatia`s World War II primate whom John Paul beatified during a 1998 trip.
Stepinac was hailed as a hero by Catholics for his resistance to communism and refusal to separate the Croatian church from the Vatican. But his beatification was controversial because many Serbs and Jews accuse him of sympathizing with the Nazis.