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Pope's Croatia Visit Overshadowed by Death of Pilgrims - 2003-06-08

Pope John Paul II has urged Croatia to make the family a cornerstone of its society, which still suffers in the aftermath of the country's war for independence in the 1990s. He made his appeal during a mass in the Croatian seaport city of Rijeka, one of the highlights of his landmark trip to the former Yugoslav republic. But the pontiff's visit was overshadowed by news that some pilgrims had died of heat exhaustion.

Despite sweltering heat, huge crowds of praying and singing pilgrims welcomed Pope John Paul II on his 100th foreign pilgrimage and his third visit to Croatia.

The papal tour took him to the Croatian port city of Rijeka, where an estimated 100,000 pilgrims gathered for an open-air mass, after many had spent the night lighting candles and praying.

The pontiff urged the youth of the mainly Roman Catholic country of nearly five million people to marry and raise families.

Speaking in Croatian, the pope told young people not to fear what he called "a bond which is publicly manifested and recognized." He also urged political leaders not to ignore the families in Croatia, where one out of five adults are unemployed and the average monthly wage is $450.

The pope said "It must not be forgotten that in helping the family," politicians "also help to resolve other important problems, such as providing assistance to the sick and the elderly, stopping the spread of crime and finding a remedy to drug use."

Witnesses said the 83-year-old pontiff appeared frail and looked fatigued in the punishing sun that has accompanied his busy program in the former Yugoslav republic.

At least two people died at an open-air Mass conducted by the pope in the town of Osijek, in eastern Croatia, after apparent heart attacks triggered by sweltering heat. Organizers said hundreds of other pilgrims needed medical attention in recent days.

The incidents marred his trip, which was also aimed at promoting reconciliation, following Croatia's war of independence from Yugoslavia during the 1990s.

After talks with government officials, Pope John Paul is scheduled to wrap up his trip Monday with a visit to the southern coastal city of Zadar. The pope has already said he wants to encourage politicians to make sure the Balkan nation will become part of what he called "the great European family" of the European Union.

The Vatican appears to hope that predominantly Catholic nations will play a role in designing the new EU constitution, amid concerns that the document makes no reference to Christianity.