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Why the Charlemagne Prize goes to the pope this year

Pope Francis is to receive the prestigious Charlemagne Prize. DW looks at how the international prize got its name, why the pope was chosen and why many residents of Aachen may be headed to Rome this week.

The International Charlemagne Prize of Aachen has been awarded since 1950 for work done in the service of European unification and peace. Previous recipients include top European politicians, chancellors, a US president, the people of Luxembourg, the euro and a pope. In 2004, John Paul II, already severely ill, received the only "Extraordinary Charlemagne Prize" for his role in the collapse of Eastern Europe's communist regimes. Germany's oldest prize for European policies is very prestigious. The ceremony brings together prominent political leaders and dignitaries every year.

The founder

The idea to create a prize for European unity goes back to Kurt Pfeiffer, an Aachen cloth merchant and one of the western German city's first mayors after WWII. Pfeiffer founded a society, and managed to convince quite a few Aachen politicians to join him. The British allied powers were initially wary as Pfeiffer and a few of his mates were former members of the Nazis' NSDAP party. In the end, Pfeiffer convinced them, and soon enough, the illustrious group of laureates garnered rising interest in the Charlemagne Prize.

The name

The prize is named for Charlemagne, or Charles the Great, the Franconian king - and later Holy Roman Emperor - revered as the "Father of Europe."

Charlemagne created an empire with an efficient administration across what is today western Europe - by means of brutal force and bloody wars like that waged against the pagan Saxons. He built the foundation for a European identity. Aachen was his imperial capital; through the 16th century, this was where German kings were crowned. Naming the award after Charlemagne was an obvious choice for Aachen cloth merchant Pfeiffer: he wanted to build a bridge from the past to the future.

Charlemagne shrine in Aachen Cathedral

Charlemagne is buried in Aachen Cathedral

The laureate

Pope Francis is the recipient of the 2016 Charlemagne Prize. At a time when the European Union is facing the greatest challenge of the 21st century, "it is the pope 'from the end of the world' who orientates millions of Europeans to what the European Union brings together at its core: a valid system of values, respect for human dignity and civil liberties, the uniqueness of human beings whatever their ethnic, religious or cultural background and respect for creation," the prize committee's statement said.

The pope urged Europe to stand together, he held a remarkable speech before the European Parliament telling Europeans to hold on to their values and to avoid falling back into nationalism, and he had important things to say in the refugee crisis, Armin Laschet told DW. "That's why Pope Francis is a fitting recipient," said the former European lawmaker, who is on the committee's board and helped choose this year's prize recipient.

Pilgrimage to Rome, 2016

While the pope is happy to receive the prize, he isn't coming to Aachen for the ceremony, so the committee and a throng of European politicians are headed to the Vatican instead. Another novelty: The Prize is traditionally awarded on Ascension Day, but since Pope Francis is busy on this Catholic holiday, the award ceremony is now scheduled to take place in the Sala Regia at the Apostolic Palace a day later, on Friday. Three former recipients who represent EU institutions will deliver the tribute: European Parliament President Martin Schulz, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, and European Council President Donald Tusk.

Pilgrimage to Rome, a.D. 800

Charlemagne had close, mutually beneficial ties to the Holy See. In Rome on Christmas Day in the year 800, Pope Leo III crowned the Franconian king as the first western European emperor. Just a year earlier, Charles had saved the pope from being toppled by political adversaries. The interdependence between the empire and the papacy was to influence European politics for centuries to come. Today, the pope no longer has a hand in worldly politics; all he rules is the square kilometer of the Vatican, which isn't a member of the European Union, but has open borders to Italy and uses the euro.

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