Pope heads for Croatia to defend Christian Europe
Vatican city: Pope Benedict XVI sets off for Croatia Saturday for a two-day visit aimed at reaffirming Christian values that he believes are under threat in increasingly secular societies across Europe.
The pope is expected to receive a warm welcome in the 90-percent Catholic country of 4.4 million people that is preparing to join the European Union.
An atheist group however held a small rally on the eve of his visit, with slogans advocating the use of condoms and condemning child abuse by priests.
The pope was to deliver a speech on Saturday to young people and leading cultural figures in which he was set to give strong backing to Croatia's moves to integrate into Europe without renouncing its strong Christian identity.
There are deep misgivings in Croatia about the effects of joining the EU and nationalists in the Croatian Church are still angry with European countries for their caution in supporting Croatia's bid for independence.
"Some Catholics fear that by entering a big family of European people a part of our spiritual legacy... will be lost," Anton Tamarut, a professor at the Zagreb Catholic Faculty of Theology, said to a news agency ahead of the visit.
Oppressed and marginalised during the decades of communist rule after World War II, the Church regained some of its lost prominence in the 1990s when it was promoted by the nationalist regime then in power.
The Church was further strengthened during the 1991-1995 war with rebel Serbs, mainly Orthodox Christians, who opposed Croatia's independence.
The Holy See was one of the first states to recognise Croatia's independence in 1992, a move that helped boost the papacy's popularity in the country.
On Sunday the pope is to address a "Feast for the Family" in a hippodrome in the Croatian capital Zagreb in which he will defend family values.
He will also pray at the tomb of cardinal Alojzije Stepinac, who has been put on the path to sainthood by the Catholic Church despite accusations that he failed to speak out against Croatia's pro-Nazi regime during World War II.
Benedict XVI, 84, was drafted into a German anti-aircraft corps at the end of the war and was briefly held as a prisoner of war in 1945.
He has not been abroad since travelling to Spain in November and his visit to Croatia is his 19th foreign trip since becoming pope in 2005.