Pope John Paul II is to grant an audience to Jörg Haider, the Austrian far-Right Freedom Party leader shunned by Europe, later this year, it emerged at the weekend.
   The Vatican has deemphasised the significance of the meeting, to be held in mid-December, saying that Mr Haider's expected presence was in the context of an Austrian delegation that was religious and not political in nature.
   The group, from Carinthia, the province where Mr Haider is governor, will be donating a Christmas tree to the Pope on behalf of its people.
   Mr Haider, to whom a number of xenophobic comments have been attributed, is expected to join Carinthia's other civic leaders and the Bishop of Klagenfurt, Mgr Egon Capellari, for a visit to the Vatican on 16 December, Italian state radio said. Horst Moser, the organiser of the event for Carinthia, confirmed that the visit would take place.
   Mgr Gianni Danzi, secretary of the Pontifical Commission for the Vatican City, insisted that Mr Haider's planned participation had no political overtones. He said: "The donation of the tree is strictly religious in character. That the person [Mr Haider] is criticised I can understand. But it is not the person who is giving the tree. It is a gesture of the people of Carinthia.


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