ROME, Dec. 18 (JTA) – The Vatican downplayed Pope John Paul II’s audience with a far-right Austrian politician this week, but the hundreds of rioters who fought with police and the Jewish merchants who shuttered their shops obviously took it more seriously.
The clashes erupted Saturday near St. Peter’s Square when Jorg Haider took part in a ceremony to light the Vatican Christmas tree. The tree comes from Austria’s Carinthia region, where Haider is governor.
Earlier in the day, Haider and a 250-member delegation formally presented the tree to Pope John Paul II in a controversial but low-key ceremony inside the Vatican.
Riot police used tear gas against hundreds of protesters who tried to march on the square during the tree-lighting ceremony. The marchers, many of them militant left-wing students, carried a huge picture of Auschwitz and banners reading “Haider, No Thanks” and “Read Haider, Think Hitler.”
About 200 helmeted riot police blocked the avenue leading to the square with a phalanx of shields and police vans. The protesters hurled cobblestones and smoke bombs. Police retaliated by firing tear gas canisters and wading into the crowd with their truncheons.
The clashes were described as the most violent protests in memory associated with a Vatican event. About 30 people were reported injured, including two dozen policemen and a reporter for a local newspaper.
Numerous peaceful protests took place as well. Among them, Jewish shopkeepers in some of Rome’s most crowded shopping streets turned off the lights of their stores for half an hour.
Told of the Jewish gesture, Haider made a sarcastic comment to Italian television that outraged public opinion.
“If they want to save money on electricity,” he said, “let them go ahead.”
The Italian government, Israel, leftist groups and local and international Jewish organizations repeatedly had called on the pope not to meet with a man they consider the symbol of resurgent European racism and xenophobia.
Israel’s ambassador to the Vatican reiterated Israel’s disappointment over the meeting.
“Our government said beforehand that we would be upset and distressed if such a meeting took place, and we can only express regret that it did so,” Ambassador Yosef Lamdan told JTA.
Last month, Israel said the visit would cause the Israeli government “considerable disappointment and displeasure.”
Lamdan said Israel recognized that the Vatican downplayed the encounter with Haider and tried to limit its importance by, among other things, reducing the one-on-one contact between the pope and Haider to two minutes.
Nonetheless, Lamdan said, Israel feared that Haider would try to use the papal audience to rehabilitate his image.
Under intense international pressure, Haider stepped down earlier this year as leader of Austria’s Freedom Party, which is known for its anti-immigrant stands. Years ago, he praised Hitler’s employment policies and members of the Nazi SS, though he has repeatedly apologized for the remarks.
When the Freedom Party entered Austria’s coalition government earlier this year, the European Union imposed unprecedented diplomatic sanctions, and Israel withdrew its ambassador from Vienna. The E.U. sanctions have since been lifted.
Vatican officials suggested that Pope John Paul II does not share Haider’s political views.
Anti-Haider demonstrators had staged peaceful street protests for days, and more than 1,000 police were ready Saturday in case of violence. The Christmas tree itself, towering above a traditional manger scene, was under 24-hour guard.
During the formal Vatican ceremony Saturday morning, some observers thought the pope gave Haider a frosty welcome. The Milan daily Corriere della Sera reported that the pope had tried unsuccessfully to convince Haider not to come to Rome.
The pope spoke only for a few minutes with Haider and a local bishop.
He did not mention Haider by name when he addressed the group, but noted that he had agreed to accept the Christmas tree from Carinthia three years ago – that is, before Haider became governor.
At the close of the audience, a Vatican official give Haider and his group copies of a papal message released last week that strongly condemns racism and xenophobia.
Jewish leaders in Rome sharply criticized Haider’s visit.
Amos Luzzatto, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, said he felt bitter and disappointed over a string of Vatican actions that has thrown Catholic-Jewish dialogue into crisis.
“Over the past six months, we Jews have been bombarded by a series of actions and positions on the part of Vatican authorities that seem to have been planned out,” he said. “We wonder where it will end.”
Earlier Vatican moves included its beatification of the anti-Semitic Pope Pius IX and a Vatican document implying that other religions are not equal to Catholicism.