DEN BOSCH, The Netherlands -- Pope John Paul II began one of the most controversial trips of his seven-year papacy Saturday, hoping to unify the divided Dutch church even as protesters hanged him in effigy in Amsterdam.
The pope was received with widespread indifference in the traditionally Catholic city of Den Bosch, where he sought to calm the anger aroused by his appointment of a conservative bishop. Security for his trip was exceptionally tight.
In Amsterdam, about 150 young people hanged the pope in effigy on a mock scaffolding erected in Dam square, once a celebrated gathering place for drug users.
The protesters, dressed up as nuns and monks, burned the effigy and dispersed without incident. The group issued a public appeal for a large turnout to an anti-pope demonstration scheduled to coincide with John Paul's visit to the city of Utrecht on Sunday.
In Den Bosch, only a few thousand people lined the ancient streets as the pope passed in his glass-topped truck to the cathedral where he celebrated vespers -- the evening prayer. Crowds were thicker in the approaches to the cathedral and the church itself was filled to capacity.
Along much of the route, the crowd was outnumbered by security police drafted to prevent demonstrations by fringe political groups that plan to disrupt the visit.
On the plane bringing him to The Netherlands -- his 22nd foreign trip -- the pope shrugged off the planned demonstrations.
'There have always been challengers. They challenged St. Paul and Jesus himself,' he said.
The first day of John Paul's trip ended with a discussion with representatives of Catholic schools in the Netherlands. He then went to The Hague to spend the night at the residence of the papal nuncio.
The pope's appointment earlier this year of Bishop Jan ter Schure, a conservative, aroused a storm of protest that was joined even by the leaders of some religious orders.
The Vatican's policy of appointing conservatives to stem the liberal tide in Holland, thus ignoring local wishes, is a major source of disagreement between the pope and the democracy-minded Dutch.
'In the final analysis, the pope has to take the decisions,' John Paul told the cathedral congregation in halting Dutch.
With ter Schure sitting nearby, the pope said: 'I appointed the person before God whom I thought most suitable for the job. Accept him, for the sake of the love of Christ.'
Earlier, on his arrival at Eindhoven, John Paul said he had come to the Netherlands 'to stimulate unity.' He is the first pontiff to visit The Netherlands since the 11th century.
Sixty-nine percent of those questioned in a recent poll said the trip would only deepen divisions between traditionals and liberals in the Dutch church.
The walls of Den Bosch and other cities were plastered with posters calling for liberalization of Vatican policies on abortion, birth control, homosexuality and the position of women in the church.
'Basically, we in The Netherlands do not want the pope,' said pensioner Al Rabou, 66, who was waiting in the crowd.
Police threw a massive security screen around the pontiff. Their concern for his safety was heightened after posters signed by a known terrorist group, the 'Northern Autonomous Terror Front,' called for an anti-papal revolt and urged supporters to come to demonstrations equipped with sticks and helmets.
The pope's itinerary kept public appearances to a minimum and avoided Amsterdam, with its fringe politics and drug scene.
Asked on his plane whether he was afraid, he smiled and replied: 'Yes, very much.'
But he added: 'I was invited and it was my duty. It is a normal trip. There are Dutch problems in Holland just as there are American problems in the United States.'