The Pope asks Czech Protestants to forgive

The Pope yesterday asked forgiveness for all the "wrongs done to non- Catholics", during a canonisation ceremony for a 17th-century Moravian Catholic priest who became a symbol of the Counter-Reformation.

Addressing a rain-swept crowd in the Moravian town of Olomouc, the Pope denied that the canonisation of Jan Sarkander was aimed at "reopening old wounds," and said it would bring Christians closer together.However, he acknowledged the unease felt by many over the canonisation.

"I ask forgiveness for the wrongs inflicted on non-Catholics during the turbulent history of these peoples," the Pope said, adding that, for its part, the Catholic Church would forgive those that had wronged its flock.

Czech Protestants say Sarkander helped invading Polish Catholic armies in the bitter power struggle against Moravian and Bohemian Protestants in the early 17th century and is not suitable for canonisation. Many Czech Catholics admitted that although Sarkander had been imprisoned and tortured to death by the Protestants, he was not an ideal candidate.

Despite bad weather, an estimated 150,000 attended the ceremony, which also saw the uncontroversial canonisation of the 13th-century noblewoman Zdislava de Lemberk.

Most observers agreed that the response to the Pope's visit to Olomouc yesterday and to Prague on Saturday was considerably less fervent than the reaction to his visit in 1990 to what was then Czechoslovakia, only six months after the collapse of the Communist regime.

Today, the Pope is due to return to his native Poland for the fifth time since becoming Pope in 1978. There, in addition to visiting Skoczow, the birthplace of Sarkander, he is also expected to meet President Lech Walesa and the Prime Minister, Jozef Oleksy.