e-mail us
Riot breaks out as pope greets Haider

NCR Staff

When Pope John Paul II opened this Holy Year on Dec. 24, 1999, in St. Peter’s Basilica, no one anticipated it would end in a hail of smoke bombs and tear gas canisters a few hundred yards away. As it turned out, while the Jubilee year officially ends Jan. 6, many Romans will remember Dec. 16 as the day the year’s holiness evaporated in two hours of ferocious urban warfare.

The late afternoon melee on the Via della Conciliazione, the broad avenue that leads into St. Peter’s Square, was triggered by the pope’s welcome of Jörg Haider, Austria’s enfant terrible on the far right. By far the most violent protest directed at the Vatican in modern times, it left more than 30 protesters, 26 police and two journalists injured.

Haider, unofficial leader of Austria’s far-right “Freedom Party,” is Europe’s most controversial figure, in part for ambiguous statements about Nazism, in part for championing an anti-immigrant platform that many consider xenophobic. His party’s entry into the Austrian government nine months ago sparked wide international outrage and sanctions from the European Union, lifted only in September (NCR, Feb. 18).

The pope received Haider as governor of the southern Austrian province of Carinthia, whose turn it was to present the annual Christmas tree for St. Peter’s Square.

While Haider’s visit was the immediate cause of the tumult, participants insisted that it had deeper roots, reflecting mounting anger at the Vatican among some Italians who see it as an oppressive force. Many of the demonstrators believe the Jubilee Year of 2000 will be remembered more for a string of controversial political and theological moves from the Vatican than for any spiritual uplift.

In the moments before the violence exploded, many of the approximately 3,000 protesters, the majority in their 20s and 30s, voiced their anger in conversations with NCR. Some spoke of the Vatican’s staunch opposition to this summer’s world Gay Pride festival, which the pope called an “insult to the Grand Jubilee of the Year 2000.” Others said they regarded the Sept. 3 beatification of Pope Pius IX, controversial for his treatment of Italy’s Jewish minority in the 19th century, as a revival of Catholic anti-Semitism.

Still others voiced outrage over the treatment of women by the church, targeting especially the church’s opposition to the so-called “morning after” pill, which prevents implantation of a fertilized ovum. The Vatican has recently attempted to overturn the Italian government’s decision to make the pill available in pharmacies. Many objected also to what they see as high-level Vatican support for proposed immigration policies that would exclude Muslims. Such policies, proposed by Cardinal Giacomo Biffi of Bologna, have received support from Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican secretary of state.

Some protesters pointed to the recent Vatican document Dominus Iesus, which stressed Christ as the unique savior of the world, as an example of religious intolerance.

“The visit of Haider to Rome is the logical conclusion to this Jubilee year, that has seen the Vatican embrace the right and discriminate against homosexuals, against immigrants, against women, against other religions,” said a young woman who addressed the crowd.

The protesters, a mixture of communists, university students, Jews, Greens and progressives, had planned to carry a large portrait of Auschwitz detainees with the slogan “never again” up the Via della Conciliazione to place it next to Haider’s tree. They were interrupted by a police line at the beginning of the avenue, in a small space named for John XXIII.

The violence broke out when a group of the protesters attempted to break through police barricades, using the portrait as a battering ram. The response was swift, with teargas blasts followed by waves of police swinging nightsticks moving into the crowd.

Some observers claimed the force was excessive. One man bleeding from a head wound told NCR he had been ordered by police to stop and had complied, only to be clubbed anyway.

Others pointed out that a core group of protesters had come prepared for violence, wearing padding and helmets in anticipation of clashes with police, and, in some cases, porting rocks.

The confrontation was not the week’s only anti-Haider protest. On Dec. 15, Rome’s Jewish community held a rally in the historic ghetto, and that evening a torchlight parade made its way through city streets. Shopkeepers along the Via Nazionale turned off their lights Dec. 16 to protest Haider’s arrival, so during one of the busiest shopping evenings of the year the city’s commercial center was briefly plunged into virtual darkness.

While the appointment for a delegation from Carinthia to present the Christmas tree was made three years ago under another governor, the decision to go ahead with the event -- which featured a speech by Haider in St. Peter’s Square praising social justice -- drew wide criticism.

Vatican officials argued the pope could not cancel an invitation already extended. Italian commentators pointed out, however, that the Vatican does pull out of commitments it regards as “inopportune,” most recently a plan for the pope to visit the Italian parliament.

In fact, this was not Haider’s first encounter with John Paul. The two men met in a private audience in 1993, a meeting engineered by conservative Austrian Bishop Kurt Krenn of Sankt Pölten, an ally and friend of Haider.

The Vatican tried to play down the significance of Haider’s reception. His private audience with John Paul lasted just five minutes, with the pope limiting himself, according to some media reports, to saying “good morning.” Haider was later given a copy of the pope’s recent message for World Peace Day criticizing xenophobia and racism.

Yet during the afternoon ceremony in St. Peter’s Square, the Carinthian delegation was welcomed by Cardinal Edmund Szoka, an American prelate who serves as head administrator for the Vatican city-state. Szoka, former archbishop of Detroit, said the group was “worthily represented” by Haider. Pictures of Haider with the pope appeared in newspapers and television reports the next day.

Haider himself did little to reduce tension, calling Italy’s immigration policies “soft” and its political leaders “weak” during his visit. He belittled shopkeepers who turned off their lights in protest, suggesting that perhaps they wanted to save on electric bills.

The aftermath of the rioting was in itself somewhat surreal. Cleaning crews worked late into Saturday night to have the Via della Conciliazione ready for Sunday’s “Jubilee of the Spectacle,” a Vatican-sponsored celebration of the performing arts. Jugglers, brass bands and mimes performed in the street in which just hours before police had fought pitched battles with protesters.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, January 5, 2001