Pope Begins Four-Day Tour of Poland

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 25, 2006; 12:00 PM

WARSAW, May 25 -- Pope Benedict XVI kicked off a four-day tour of Poland Thursday as part of a public mission to honor his predecessor, John Paul II, still revered here as a national hero more than a year after his death.

As soon as he stepped off his plane at the Warsaw airport, Benedict gave an opening greeting in Polish and declared that he had "come to follow in the footsteps" of John Paul.Tens of thousands of flag-waving Poles waited on the streets of the capital to greet the German-born pontiff, a warm reception but muted compared to the throngs that usually turned out for John Paul's visits home.

"I have come to Poland, the beloved homeland of my great predecessor Pope John Paul II, in order to inhale, as he used to do, this atmosphere of faith in which you live," Benedict said in an address to Catholic priests at the Basilica of St. John the Baptist.

Benedict is scheduled to make a pilgrimage to Krakow, the southern city where John Paul served as archbishop for a dozen years, as well as to the nearby town of Wadowice, where the Polish pope was born.

His final stops will be the sites of the Nazi death camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau, where he will meet with camp survivors and Jewish leaders. Given his personal history as a conscripted member of the Hitler Youth during his teenage years in Bavaria, the visit is expected to attract the most attention of his tour.

Poles often express a chilly view of their German neighbors for historical reasons, but many of those who came to see Benedict said his elevation as pope had the potential to improve relations.

"He has a certain ability to unite people and I think he wants to follow in the path of John Paul II," said Anna Krzych, 61, who traveled several hours from her hometown near the German border to see Benedict in person.

Added her 59-year-old cousin, Zenon Kosinski: "John Paul II and this pope both lived through the Second World War and both knew what it meant, so hopefully this will help advance peace in this world."

In his public appearances Friday, Benedict spoke mostly in Italian but also tossed off a few sentences in Polish. He did not speak in German.

His visit to Poland is only his second trip beyond Italy since becoming pope in April 2005. Last August, he appeared in Cologne, Germany, for a World Youth Congress, an event that was originally scheduled by John Paul.

Poland is one of the most Catholic nations in Europe: About 96 percent of its 38 million people identify themselves as members of the church.

Accordingly, alcohol sales have been banned in Warsaw while Benedict is in town and censors are erasing all mentions or depictions of sex on Polish national television for the duration of his visit.

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