VATICAN CITY, Dec. 14 (AP) - The Vatican took some distance Thursday from far-right politician Joerg Haider, suggesting the pope may preach respect for ``human and Christian values'' when he meets Saturday with the Austrian.

The Vatican issued its first formal statement on the meeting, which has drawn protests from the Israeli government, Jewish organizations and leftist politicians in Italy.

Haider will lead an Austrian group that will present the pope with a Christmas tree for St. Peter's Square. The tree was donated by Austria's Carinthia region, of which Haider is governor.

The Vatican noted that Pope John Paul II traditionally receives such groups and considers them ``pastoral'' meetings. ``This gives Roman pontiffs full liberty to call the parties' attention to the respect for human and Christian values,'' it said.

Haider has been criticized for past remarks sympathetic toward Hitler's Nazi regime. Other European Union members, worried about his anti-immigrant views, imposed diplomatic sanctions on Austria when his Freedom Party entered Austria's government, lifting them only in September.

Haider drew renewed criticism Wednesday from Italy's president and other politicians when he accused Italy of lax controls on illegal immigration.

In an interview published Thursday in the Milan newspaper Corriere della Sera, Haider suggested that the Vatican shared his concern over the problem of Muslim immigration in predominantly Christian Europe.

The pope has consistently called for equal and fair treatment of immigrants, regardless of their religion, although one Italian cardinal did raise the issue earlier this year.

Italian opponents of the visit have announced torchlight marches in protest, one through Rome's medieval Jewish Ghetto.

The plan for the handover of the Christmas tree was made before Haider became governor of Carinthia. He was received by the pope for a private audience in 1993.

The 250-member Carinthian group includes a 65-member choir, a 52-member brass band as well as Bishop Egon Kapellari.

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