Madrid lays on lavish party for pope amid economic crisis
Madrid is laying on a lavish party for Pope Benedict XVI and more than a million faithful for the Catholic Church's youth festival this week -- as Spain suffers its worst economic crisis in decades.
The irony has not been lost on the country's 15-M "indignant" movement, launched on May 15 against the management of the economic crisis, soaring unemployment and political corruption.
It is mulling a series of protests during the August 16-21 World Youth Day in Madrid.
"We are not angry about the pope's visit, which some will agree with and others won't, but rather over the financing of it with public money, especially at a time when many services are being cut because it's necessary to curb government spending," the 15-M movement said in a statement.
Spain is struggling to recover from an 18-month recession that began in late 2008 and left it with a eurozone-high unemployment rate of just over 20 percent and a bloated deficit.
But the WYD's chief financial officer, Fernando Gimenez Barriocanal, said most of the 50-million-euro cost will be met through registration fees from the pilgrims, who are also expected to inject 100 million euros into the Spanish economy.
"WYD is a unique opportunity for the Spanish economy, at zero cost to taxpayers," he said.
Many "indignados" also blame preparations for the pope's visit on the police decision to dismantle their camp at Madrid's Puerta del Sol square this month.
The evacuation sparked mass demonstrations, which in turn led to clashes with police.
More than 10,000 police are on duty to avoid incidents this week.
But the 'indignants' are not the only ones angry over the event.
Some 150 groups that oppose the pope's visit plan to protest on August 17 on the eve of his arrival.
They include groups representing gays and lesbians, feminists as well as leftist political parties.
During his two previous visits, the pope railed against social reforms introduced by Spain's Socialist government such as same-sex marriage, easier access to abortion and fast-track divorce.
One government minister, Ramon Jauregui, has already warned that he did not consider it "appropriate" that the pope criticise Spanish society again when he comes this week.
For the theologian Juan Jose Tamayo, the Church "is far from the concerns" of young Spaniards who are part "of the unbelievers of Europe".
Today, 73% of Spaniards call themselves Catholics, against 80% in 2002, and 14% say they go to mass.
Civil unions have exceeded religious marriages since 2009. In 2010, homosexual unions, allowed since 2005, reached 2.1% of all marriages.
Benedict visited Spain in 2006, a year after he was elected pontiff, for a Church meeting on families in the eastern city of Valencia.
He returned in November 2010 for a two-day visit that included stops in Barcelona and Santiago de Compostela.
This time, a huge stage has been erected at the central Plaza de Cibeles, one of Madrid's most emblematic sites and where the Real Madrid football team traditionally celebrates its victories.
The square, surrounded by buildings dating back to the late 18th century, will host three of the four main events during WYD: the opening mass on Tuesday, the papal welcome two days later and the Stations of the Cross ceremony on Friday, which will feature 15 carvings from the Spanish Holy Week processions.
On Saturday, hundreds of thousands of people will be entertained by pop groups at the Cuatro Vientos air base southwest of the capital, where the pope holds a "Prayer Vigil" in the evening.
The young pilgrims will spend the night under the stars at the air base with duvets and rugs on a vast esplanade the size of 48 football fields.
Benedict celebrates mass there on Sunday 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 that will protect him from Madrid's brutal August heat.
"We are preparing for a million, 1.2-1.3 million people," said Yago de la Cierva, the executive director for WYD 2011.
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 pilgrimage city of Santiago de Compostela.
© 2011 AFP