Pope Benedict XVI has given strong backing to Croatia's bid to join the European Union as he arrived in the Balkan nation.
The pontiff also expressed the Vatican's long-running concern that Europe needs to be reminded of its Christian roots.
Benedict, beginning his first trip as pope to Croatia, is spending the weekend to mark the Croatian church's national family day, but his visit is also a boost to the conservative government's efforts to finalise EU accession negotiations.
Croatia is expected to learn this month or next if negotiations to join the 27-member EU bloc can be concluded, with membership expected in 2012 or 2013.
The Vatican and Croatia, which is 89.8% Catholic, have long had solid ties: The Holy See was one of the first to recognise Croatia when it declared independence from Serb-led Yugoslavia in 1991, and the Vatican is eager to have another stalwart Catholic country in the EU bloc.
Benedict said it was "logical, just and necessary" that Croatia join the EU given Croatia's history and culture is so strongly rooted in that of Europe.
"From its earliest days, your nation has formed part of Europe, and has contributed in its unique way to the spiritual and moral values that for centuries have shaped the daily lives and the personal and national identity of Europe's sons and daughters," Benedict said upon arrival at Zagreb's airport.
But he acknowledged in comments aboard the papal plane that a certain fear or scepticism of joining the EU is understandable given Croatia is a small country entering into a large, already-formed bloc with values that long ago strayed from Europe's Christian heritage.
"One can understand there is perhaps a fear of an overly strong centralised bureaucracy and a rationalistic culture that doesn't sufficiently take into account the history - the richness of history and the richness of the diverse history" that Croatia offers, he said.
He urged Croatians to make as their "mission" the fight against this and reintroduce into the EU the "richness of diverse cultures" that Christianity represents.