, ZAGREB, June 3 – Croatia\’s Catholics hope a visit by Pope Benedict XVI this weekend will strengthen traditional values, amid fears the nation\’s religious identity will suffer if it succeeds in joining the European Union.
"Some Catholics fear that by entering a big family of European people a part of our spiritual legacy, of everything that formed us throughout history … will be lost," Anton Tamarut, a professor at the Zagreb Catholic Faculty of Theology, told AFP.
Drina Cavar, who heads the Catholic association Kristol Stol (Christ\’s Table), said the papal visit on Sunday "symbolises our traditional and historic bonds with the pope, the Church and the Catholic religion."
With EU membership, which Zagreb hopes to achieve by 2013, Croatia will sacrifice parts of its "independence and authenticity," Cavar argued.
The pope\’s trip, she said, "will strengthen our original and traditional values when we are at a historic turning point."
Foreign Minister Gordan Jandrokovic said Benedict\’s trip to Croatia, where 88 percent of the country\’s 4.4 million people are Roman Catholic, "shows a clear support for the Holy See to Coatia\’s EU entry."
"That support is extremely important for us," he added.
Franc Jelinic, a 30-year-old plumber, said he does not expect Croatia\’s Catholic identity to suffer if it joins the 27-member EU bloc.
"We\’ve been raised like this for centuries, and it has not been lost even during the communist rule," he argued, after praying a rosary for the pope in a Zagreb square.
The Catholic Church\’s role has significantly changed since Croatia\’s independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991.
Oppressed and marginalised during the decades of communist rule after World War II, the church regained some of its lost prominence in the 1990s when it was promoted by the nationalist regime then in power.
The church was further strengthened during the 1991-1995 war with rebel Serbs, mainly Orthodox christians, who opposed Croatia\’s independence.
"The Catholic religion and the Croatian national identity were always very close and interlaced," Tamarut, the theology professor, said.
The Vatican was one of the first institutions to recognise Croatia\’s independence in 1992, a move that helped boost the papacy\’s popularity in the country.
Croatia\’s Catholic church has however drawn criticism, notably for insisting on religious education in public schools, and backing a law restricting medically assisted reproduction.
Croatian bishops also called for prayers for three former generals tried in a UN court for war crimes.
While some are uncomfortable with the church\’s intrusion into secular areas, others argue that, in an overwhelmingly Catholic country, religious leaders should have a strong voice.
"Why it should not have an influence? They are legitimate representatives of an overwhelming majority of the population and Christianity concerns all segments of life," Kresmir Planinic, 42, told AFP after attending a mass in downtown Zagreb.