Joerg Haider, the leader of Austria's far-right Freedom Party (FPO), has stepped down amid protests condemning his party as xenophobic, racist, and pro-Nazi.

But Austrian Protestants and Roman Catholics see Haider as an opportunist who gains power from voter resentment of Austrian politicians rather than from public hatred of foreigners.

"Austrians are no more anti-foreigner than [people] in other countries," says Helmut Rabenau, a Baptist Union of Austria leader. "Haider is no fascist, but rather a cunning opportunist."

In spite of his resignation, Haider has publicly reaffirmed his intention to stay involved in national politics, even acknowledging his ambition to become chancellor.

Some political observers see Haider's resignation as a concession to the European Union, which moved to isolate Austria politically after the People's Party invited Haider's Freedom Party to form a new power-sharing government in February.

Numerous European Christian leaders have declared that foreign criticism of Austria's new government was premature. Austrian church leaders welcomed a pledge of support from the Conference of European Churches (CEC), Europe's leading ecumenical organization.

CEC General Secretary Keith Clements expressed "deepest solidarity" with Austria's churches in their stand against "racism, xenophobia, and anti-semitism," according to Ecumenical News International.

"It's vitally important that the churches aren't cold-shouldering us, as governments are," says Erich Leichtenberger of the nation's Roman Catholic archdiocese, which claims 70 percent of Austria's 7.8 million citizens as members.

Churches both within Austria and across the globe have been careful not to express direct criticism of the democratically elected government in Austria. Instead they have repeated earlier warnings of the need for openness and tolerance.

"The support [among the electorate] for the FPO is a protest against the current political situation, rather than a sign of hostility to foreigners," says Herwit Sturn, bishop of Austria's 340,000-member Evangelical Lutheran church.

Foreign commentators have criticized the Austrian churches' stance. The religion writer for Le Monde in Paris compared the "timidity" of Roman Catholic leaders to the silence of church officials in pre-war Nazi Germany.

Leichtenberger says the Catholic Church does not interfere with politics, but will speak out against human-rights violations.

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