Associated Press – August 14, 2007
VIENNA, Austria – They were planted to honor one pope. Now they’re being purged for another.
Four stately lime trees ceremoniously planted near a popular Roman Catholic shrine in 1983 for a visit to Austria by the late Pope John Paul II are being uprooted to make way for a large grandstand for next month’s pilgrimage by Pope Benedict XVI.
Environmentalists have criticized the action, but church and municipal officials are playing down the trees’ significance.
“This shows the hypocrisy of the church,” said Lambert Schoenleitner, a regional spokesman for the environmentalist Green Party in the southern province of Styria.
Schoenleitner believes nature should be revered as much as faith and doesn’t think trees should be sacrificed for an event that will last just a few hours.
Organizers say the trees must go to make room for a 16-meter-high (52 1/2-foot-high) steel grandstand to accommodate some of the thousands of pilgrims who will flock to the shrine town of Mariazell, 100 kilometers (60 miles) southwest of Vienna.
During his Sept. 7-9 visit, the seventh foreign trip in his two-year papacy, Benedict will make a stop in Mariazell to mark the 850th anniversary of its founding.
Officials conceded that a few more trees might have to be felled for the pope’s stop in Mariazell, which the Archdiocese of Vienna considers the highlight of his visit. Up to 30,000 faithful are expected to converge on the shrine to the Virgin Mary.
“Environmentalists have already been calling” to express their displeasure, hotelier Klaus Kloepfer told the Austria Press Agency on Tuesday.
Kloepfer, who owns the Schwarzer Adler Hotel, said local businessmen are unhappy that the trees are coming down – and are just peeved in general over all the preparations.
The four limes were planted to decorate Mariazell’s main square for John Paul’s first visit to the alpine country. John Paul made two other trips to overwhelmingly Catholic Austria in 1988 and 1998. He died in 2005.
Municipal and diocesan officials in Mariazell played down the controversy over the trees, insisting they are not being cut down solely for the pope’s stop but as part of a general makeover of the plaza.
New trees eventually will be planted to replace those that are cut down, Nikolaus Hulatsch, business manager for the company that oversees the shrine, said late Tuesday.
“The church does not sacrifice trees,” Paul Wuthe, a spokesman for the papal visit, told the Catholic news agency Kathpress.
Benedict’s visit will be his first to Austria as pope, though the German-born pontiff was a frequent visitor as a cardinal.
The pope also will meet with diplomats accredited to U.N. and other international organizations in Vienna, stop by a monument to Jewish victims of the Holocaust, celebrate a Mass at Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral and visit the Heiligenkreuz abbey outside the capital.
Mariazell Mayor Helmut Pertl told the Kleine Zeitung daily he thinks the fuss is completely overblown.
“If this was my biggest worry, I’d be pretty happy,” he said.
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