Pope John Paul II granted an audience to Austria's controversial far-right leader Joerg Haider amid protests by Rome students Saturday, hours before he was to be officially given a Christmas tree from Haider's home region Carinthia. The Vatican's number two, Cardinal Angelo Sodano defended the meeting. "People always deserve respect," he said. "We must make a difference between an error and the one who errs," Sodano said in an interview with the newspaper La Repubblica. Egon Kapellari, bishop of the Austrian town of Gurk and a member of the 250-strong delegation that will present the heavily guarded tree, defended the ceremony. "The tree is a religious, not a political, symbol," he said. Haider's visit was clouded by a diplomatic spat over Italy's immigration policies and protests at the pope's decision to receive him. The Vatican accepted the offer of a Christmas tree in 1997, when Haider was not governor there. Trees put up in Saint Peter's Square during the Christmas season are traditionally provided by different world regions. The visit has provoked protests by political figures, the Jewish community, associations of World War II partisan fighters against Nazism and wartime deportees. Student and left-wing demonstrators on Saturday called the visit "a provocation and an offense to the city's history." Protestors marching in Rome early Saturday said they would ask the pope to replace the Carinthian conifer with an "anti-Fascist Christmas" tree, AFP reports.