Anti-pope protesters face off with pilgrims, cops in Madrid

18th August 2011, Comments 0 comments

Thousands of protesters angry over a visit by Pope Benedict XVI for a lavish youth festival took to Madrid's streets Wednesday, to be confronted by Catholic pilgrims and riot police.

The protesters were separated by lines of riot police from the pilgrims who sang "hallelujah" and sat on the ground and prayed, but clashes broke out when the police arrested an anti-pope demonstrator who attacked them with a bottle.

Late Wednesday the police dislodged the last protesters from the central Puerta del Sol square. Media said two policemen had been injured and six people arrested.

"God yes, Church no!" was one of the slogans chanted by the protesters as they marched across central Madrid on the eve of the 84-year-old pope's arrival in the Spanish capital for the rock-festival style World Youth Day celebrations.

More than 100 groups took part, uniting many causes, including those seeking a change in the Church's attitude to gay rights and those fighting for a clearer separation of Church and state.

But the outcry that has struck a chord with many -- including some priests -- is over the official 50.5-million-euro ($73-million) price tag, excluding the cost of police and security, of the Madrid celebrations.

The protest groups, some of which argue the real cost of the event to taxpayers is more than 100 million euros, are joining under the slogan: "The pope's visit, not with my taxes."

Organisers say most of the cost will be covered by a registration fee from the assembled pilgrims, and the celebration will be a massive tourist boost for Spain.

But for many the celebrations are jarring at a time when the economy is faltering, the government is making painful cuts and the unemployment rate stands at 20.89 percent. For those under 25, the jobless figure is over 45 percent.

"We criticise this scandalous show at a time of such a terribly distressing economic situation, with entire families unemployed," said Evaristo Villar, of Redes Cristianos (Christian Networks).

"This ostentation is causing a lot of damage and distancing a lot of people" from the Church, he said.

Many of those in Spain's 15-M "indignant" movement -- launched on May 15 against the management of the economic crisis -- were also taking part in the protest.

One huge placard at the march displayed a picture of the pope next to that of Stephane Hessel, the writer who inspired the "indignant" movement, with the words "Clash of the Titans".

Another banner said: "We demand a real secular state, freedom of conscience is a right."

Among the protesters was one man dressed as the pope in a fake "Popemobile", a devil's head next to him.

Hundreds of pilgrims in the yellow WYD T-shirts and sunhats were gathered in the Puerta del Sol square when the marchers reached the site.

They sang "hallelujah" and shouted "Long Live the Pope" and "Benedicto" at the demonstrators, who responded with cries of "Nazis!" and "Pedophiles, watch out children!"

Some of the pilgrims knelt on the ground and prayed.

One of the protesters, Ignacio, 18, was bleeding from the nose.

"I was at the protest with my father, and one of the Catholics punched me in the face," he said.

One Roman Catholic group called Hazte Oir (Make Yourself Heard), called on the authorities to ban the protest march, with a petition describing it as "an expression of intolerance and religious hatred".

Spanish gays and lesbians say they will hold a separate protest "kiss-in" after the pope's arrival Thursday, in protest against the Church's attitude to homosexuality.

For the August 16-21 Catholic celebrations, traffic is banned from much of central Madrid and a huge white stage has been erected for events in the emblematic Cibeles Square.

Huge speakers were blaring out pop music throughout the day as hundreds of thousands of faithful fans in floppy hats sweltered in the August heat.

The Roman Catholic Church has opened 200 white confessionals in the form of boat sails along the main thoroughfare through Madrid's Retiro park.

The pope will hold a "Prayer Vigil" on Saturday evening at an airbase southwest of the capital, where the pilgrims will spend the night on an esplanade the size of 48 football pitches.

He will celebrate mass there on Sunday morning at a white altar almost 200 metres (660 feet) long in front of a wave-shaped stage and under a giant parasol "tree", made of interwoven golden rods.

A 24-year-old Mexican chemistry student accused of plotting a gas attack on protesters against the pope will appear in court Thursday, a legal official said. He was one of about 30,000 volunteers helping in the World Youth Day celebrations.

© 2011 AFP

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