Police fired teargas on protesters marching against the visit of Austria's far-right leader Joerg Haider to the Vatican yesterday. Mr Haider came to Rome for the lighting of a Christmas tree given by his home province of Carinthia. Shortly after his arrival, he made several comments critical of what he called Italy's "too liberal" immigration policy. In the past he has also made many anti-Semitic statements and expressed sympathy for Nazi policies. In protest at his visit, when the tree lights were switched on, many Jewish shopkeepers in the city switched off their lights. Demonstrators threw bricks and cobblestones and police responded with tear gas and beat many demonstrators to the ground with batons, witnesses said. One person was injured in the clashes. Pope John Paul II did not attend the tree-lighting ceremony but had a short meeting with Haider earlier in the day. During the three minute audience, Haider presented the Pope with a certificate for the Christmas tree. The Pope gave him a copy of his New Year message warning against nationalism, racism and xenophobia. Haider was not given time to respond. Lord Janner, vice president of the World Jewish Congress said: "It is immensely sad that such a great Pope would lower himself by meeting this international pariah." The Vatican accepted the offer of a Christmas tree in 1997, when Mr Haider was not governor of Carinthia. Mr Haider resigned as head of Austria's far-right Freedom Party after the party's success at last year's general election earned it a place in the governing coalition. The Vatican defended the meeting on the grounds that the Holy See is open to all. Cardinal Angelo Sodano told the La Repubblica newspaper: "We must make a difference between an error and one who errs." But BBC Rome correspondent David Willey said the Vatican is clearly embarrassed at the political row that has broken out over the Haider visit. The Carinthian tree is now under police guard.
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