Cost of Pope's visit comes under fire in crisis-hit Spain
The cost of Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Spain next week is coming under fire from lay groups -- and even some priests -- at a time when people are suffering from painful budget cuts.
The pope arrives in Madrid on August 18 to attend the final four days of the Roman Catholic Church's six-day youth festivities, expected to draw more than one million faithful.
Organisers of the World Youth Day celebrations put the price tag of staging the event, without counting security costs, at 50-60 million euros ($72-86 million).
This includes the cost of building a 200-metre (656-foot) long stage at the Cuatro Vientos aerodrome where the pope will deliver the final mass of his visit on August 21 and decorating it with a giant metal tree.
It also pays for setting up hundreds of water fountains and 20 giant screens at the aerodrome, and installing showers at the public schools that will be used to house pilgrims from outside Madrid.
Organisers say 80 percent of the cost of the event will be financed by payments from the young pilgrims, with the rest coming from donations by companies and individuals.
But critics argue that corporate sponsors are eligible for tax rebates of up to 80 percent of the amount they donate because the government declared World Youth Day celebrations to be an event of "exceptional public interest".
The Priests Forum, which groups together 120 priests from Madrid's poorest parishes, has criticised this loss of state revenues, especially since the government has slashed social spending and public worker salaries.
Evaristo Villar, a 68-year-old priest who is one of the leaders of the group, said the Church has had to ally itself with large multinationals to cover the costs of the "showmanship" of the event.
"These companies that are backing World Youth Day and the pope's visit leave much to desire. They are the ones who, together with international capital, have caused the crisis," he said.
"We are not against the pope's visit, we are against the way it is being staged."
Opponents of the pope's visit have set up a Facebook page calling for a boycott of the over 100 corporate sponsors of the event, including Coca-Cola, telecoms giant Telefonica and Banco Santander.
Nearly 150 groups that oppose the pope's visit plan to protest against the pontiff's visit on August 17 on the eve of his arrival.
Spain's 15-M movement against the management of the economic crisis, soaring unemployment and political corruption -- named after its May 15 launch date -- is also mulling a series of protests during his stay in Madrid.
"With the economic crisis we are going through, we can't pay for this. The Church should set the example," said a spokesman for the movement whose members call themselves "the indignant".
The regional government of Madrid in June slashed the education budget by 40 million euros this year, nearly the amount that it will cost to hold World Youth Day, he added.
Spain is struggling to emerge from nearly two years of recession that has left it with a eurozone-high unemployment rate of just over 20 percent and a bloated deficit.
Yago de la Cierva, the executive director of World Youth Day 2011, said the budget for this year's event will be 20 percent lower than for the last one in Sydney three years ago even though four times as many pilgrims are expected to come to the gathering in Spain.
"We have made huge effort of moderation, of economic responsibility," he said.
"The new generations, young people today, they like big events and the Church uses all the tools that exist to present the message of Jesus Christ."
The World Youth Day celebrations were instituted by Pope John Paul II in 1986 as a way to revitalize the faith among young Catholics. It was in Spain once before, in 1989 in the northwestern city of Santiago de Compostela.
© 2011 AFP