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Pope prepares for first trip in nine months

Pope John Paul II will set off on Saturday on a 32 hour visit to Switzerland, to follow a program that has been designed to be less challenging than previous foreign trips.

During his the visit to the capital Bern, the Holy Father will attend a rally expected to draw up to 10,000 Swiss Catholic youth in a sports arena, on Saturday evening. There will also be an open-air Mass for 60,000 people in a field outside the city on Sunday morning.

Although Switzerland is not a member of the European Union, he is expected to take the opportunity to stress the Christian traditions across Europe, a theme Vatican diplomats have been pressing to be included in a constitution for an expanded EU.

The Swiss government plans to mark the occasion by taking the final step towards full diplomatic relations with the Holy See. It will upgrade its "special mission" in Rome to full ambassadorial level, overcoming historical reluctance in one of the centres of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation.

Associated Press reports that the Pope will encounter some hostility in a country where moderate Catholics were angered by the appointment of a conservative auxiliary bishop in Switzerland in 1988. Earlier this month, a group of leading Swiss Catholic theologians said popes - like bishops - should step down when they turn 75.

The trip will be the 103rd pilgrimage of John Paul's 25-year papacy and his third to Switzerland.

Vatican officials are planning a mid-August visit to the Marian shrine in Lourdes, France, and a third visit this year to a still-undisclosed location is under consideration. And, after an absence of two years, John Paul will return in July to a vacation hamlet in the Italian Alps near France.

Before he departs for Switzerland, the Pope will meet US President George W. Bush at the Vatican on Friday, in an audience some in the Vatican hope will show the US president how right the Pope was about the war in Iraq.

It will be their first face-to-face talk since the Holy Father failed to convince Bush not to invade Iraq and the atmosphere is likely to be very different from their last meeting two years ago.

Bush, who will be in Rome for 36 hours to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the city's liberation in World War II, is due to see the Pope for about an hour in his private study.

John Paul arguably did more than any other world leader to try to stop the Iraq war, which eventually began in March, 2003. He sent top envoys to both Bush and former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and made many public appeals for a diplomatic agreement.

"It's a good thing that he is coming because the pope has to tell him a few things," Cardinal Pio Laghi said in an interview with Italy's Corriere della Sera newspaper.

He told the paper he hoped Bush would now realize "just how wise" the pope's warning about the war was.

On top of their disapproval of the war itself, Vatican officials have been upset by the scandal over the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers, which has inflamed the Arab world and embarrassed Washington.

"I love America but I could never have imagined that this kind of folly was possible," Laghi said.

Pope Prepares for First Trip in 9 Months (The Guardian/Associated Press 2/6/04)
Iraq to Dominate When Bush Sees Anti-War Pope (Reuters 2/6/04)

Disputes cloud Pope's June visit to Switzerland (Ecumenical News International 2/6/04)
Chicago's Cardinal Laments Rome Protests That Precede Bush Visit (Zenit 1/6/04)
Protesters arrested as Rome readies for Bush visit (ABC/AFP 3/6/04)
Security blitz as Rome braces for visit by Bush (The Independent 2/6/04)
Anti-war protest at Italy parade (BBC 2/6/04)
Bishop queries Bush trip (The Universe)

3 Jun 2004