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ZAGREB (Reuters) - Pope Benedict warned on Sunday that the traditional family in Europe was "disintegrating" under the weight of secularization and called for laws to help couples cope with the costs of having and educating children.
On the second day of his trip to Croatia, a bastion of Roman Catholicism in the Balkans, the pope said an open-air mass for hundreds of thousands of people and hammered home one of the major themes of his papacy.
"Unfortunately, we are forced to acknowledge the spread of a secularization which leads to the exclusion of God from life and the increasing disintegration of the family, especially in Europe," he said in his sermon on the edge of the capital.
The 84-year-old pontiff's sermon was the latest in a series of salvos against what the Church sees as growing anti-Catholicism and "Christianophobia" in Europe.
Speaking on the day Croatia, whose population of 4.4 million people is 90 percent Catholic, celebrates its "Family Day," he railed against practices such abortion, cohabitation as a "substitute for marriage," and artificial birth control.
The pope urged Catholic families throughout Europe not to give in to a creeping "secularized mentality" and called for "legislation which supports families in the task of giving birth to children and educating them."
The sermon reflected the Vatican's belief that the Catholic Church in Europe is under assault by some national governments and European institutions over issues such as gay marriage, abortion, religious education and the use of Christian religious symbols in public places.
Last year the Vatican criticized plans to propose legislation in Britain, known as the Equality Bill, that could force churches to hire homosexuals or transsexuals.
The Vatican was also at the forefront of a campaign that overturned a ruling by the continent's top human rights court that would have banned crucifixes in schools in Italy.
At the start of the trip on Saturday, the pope criticized the European Union, saying its bureaucracy is overly centralized and sometimes neglected historical differences and national cultures.
The Vatican strongly supports Croatia's bid to become an EU member, which it is expected to achieve in 2013. This would put another overwhelmingly Catholic country in the bloc.
Benedict's trip to Zagreb was intended to encourage the local Church, 20 years after independence and 16 years after the end of the Balkan wars.
At his last stop Benedict prayed at the tomb of Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac, who was accused of collaborating with the Nazi-allied rulers during World War II. The communists sentenced him to 16 years in confinement after the war.
Benedict praised him as someone who "knew how to resist every form of totalitarianism, becoming, in a time of Nazi and Fascist dictatorship, a defender of the Jews, the Orthodox and of all the persecuted, and then, in the age of communism, an advocate for his own faithful, especially for the many persecuted and murdered priests."
Jews said the pope was wrong to praise him.
"Holocaust survivors join all victims of the Nazi-aligned Ustasha regime in wartime Croatia in expressing disappointment that Pope Benedict would honor Cardinal Stepinac," said Elan Steinberg, vice president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants.
"Stepinac was an avid supporter of the Ustasha whose cruelties were so extreme that they even shocked some of their Nazi masters. Pope Benedict was right in condemning the evil Ustasha regime; he was wrong in paying homage to one of its foremost advocates," Steinberg said.
The late Pope John Paul beatified Stepinac in 1998, putting him one step away from sainthood.
Additional reporting by Igor Ilic, Editing by Lin Noueihed and David Cowell