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Pope Visits Croatia - 2003-06-05

Pope John Paul II travels to Croatia Thursday, on a trip that marks another papal milestone. The five-day visit will be foreign trip number 100 for history's most traveled pope.

This is the pope's third trip to Croatia since he was elected head of the Roman Catholic Church nearly 25 years ago. But this trip will be his longest and most extensive to the Balkan state. During his five days in Croatia, the 83-year-old pontiff will travel to five different Croatian towns and celebrate three outdoor masses.

The pope's 100th foreign trip also centers around a beatification that will take place on Friday in the southern Croatian port city of Dubrovnik. The pope will offer Croats a role model in Sister Maria Petkovic, a 20th century nun who dedicated her life to serving the poor. She founded the Daughters of Mercy, a religious order focused on charitable work.

The pope will stay in the far northern city of Rijeka. He will make day trips by plane to the other cities. According to Vatican figures, Croatia is home to 3.8 million Catholics, which amounts to over 80 percent of the country's population.

Croatia's economic problems, it has an unemployment rate of more than 20 percent, and its bid to join the European Union are likely to feature in the pope's public addresses. But the pope will focus much of his attention on the family, which has been chosen as the theme of this trip.

As preparations were under way for the pope's trip, top Croatian church leaders spoke of the pope's closeness with Croats and of Croatia's standing as the second-most Catholic Slav nation after the pope's native Poland. They noted that the churches in both countries suffered long years of communism and have had to struggle to recover from that heritage