ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI gave strong backing to Croatia's bid to join the European Union as he arrived in the Balkan country Saturday, but he said he understands those skeptics who fear the EU's "overly strong centralized bureaucracy."
Benedict spoke to reporters while en route to Croatia, a Roman Catholic country that his predecessor visited three times. Benedict is spending the weekend to mark the Croatian church's national family day.
Croatia is expected to learn this month or next if negotiations to join the 27-member EU bloc can be concluded. The yearslong process has soured many Croatians on the EU, as has the recent sentence handed down by the Hague tribunal against a Croatian general convicted of war crimes but considered a hero at home.
Benedict said it was "logical, just and necessary" that Croatia join the EU, and Croatians should be overjoyed to be taking their rightful place in Europe's political and institutional body given that Croatia's entire history and culture is so strongly rooted in that of Europe.
"From its earliest days, your nation has formed part of Europe, and has contributed in its unique way to the spiritual and moral values that for centuries have shaped the daily lives and the personal and national identity of Europe's sons and daughters," Benedict said upon arrival at Zagreb's airport.
But he acknowledged to reporters that a certain fear or skepticism is understandable given Croatia is a small country entering into a large, already-formed bloc.
"One can understand there is perhaps a fear of an overly strong centralized bureaucracy and a rationalistic culture that doesn't sufficiently take into account the history — the richness of history and the richness of the diverse history" that Croatia offers," he said.
Benedict has long supported Croatia's EU bid, eager to have another stalwart Catholic country in the bloc alongside Italy and Poland. But his trip comes at a time when some Croatians have grown weary of the demands required to join the EU. The anti-EU sentiment grew in April after the Hague tribunal sentenced Gen. Ante Gotovina, to 24 years in prison for his role in a 1995 military offensive intended to drive Serb rebels out of land they had occupied for years along Croatia's southern border with Bosnia.
Gotovina is revered by many Croats for his role in the battle that sealed Croatia's independence from Serb-led Yugoslavia after four years of conflict.
Benedict's visit to Croatia, which is 89.8-percent Catholic, has been seen as a major boost for the government's EU bid. The Vatican was one of the first countries to recognize Croatia's independence in 1991.
Benedict said the Holy See is counting on Croatia, once it is an EU member, to emphasize Europe's Christian roots and battle what the Vatican sees as the creeping secularism that has taken over life in Europe. In his arrival speech, Benedict denounced the "individualism" taking hold in Europe.
"There is a need for convinced witness and active dynamism aimed at promoting the fundamental moral values that underpin social living and the identity of the old continent," Benedict said.
Like many countries Benedict has visited recently amid the global economic downturn, there is some discontent in Croatia about the estimated euro2 million ($2.9 million) cost of the visit for a country strapped by one of its worst economic crises. A protest is planned for Saturday, unusual for this country that welcomed Pope John Paul II without opposition during his three visits.
Officially, Benedict is traveling to Zagreb to celebrate the local church's annual family day. On Saturday, after meeting with top leaders, he will deliver a speech to Croatian politicians, academics and businessmen and meet with young people.
After Sunday Mass, Benedict will pray before the tomb of Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac, Croatia's World War II primate whom John Paul beatified during a 1998 trip.
Stepinac was hailed as a hero by Catholics for his resistance to communism and refusal to separate the Croatian church from the Vatican. But his beatification was controversial because many Serbs and Jews accuse him of sympathizing with the Nazis.