Pope warns of clash with modernity in Spain, Europe

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Pope Benedict XVI warned of a "very strong" clash between faith in modernity as he landed on Saturday in Spain's holiest city, awaited by masses of pilgrims.

The 83-year-old pontiff, struggling against a perceived slide away from the Roman Catholic Church's core beliefs, recalled Spain's anti-clerical movement of the 1930s when many churches were burned.

"The clash between faith and modernity is happening again and it is very strong today," he told reporters accompanying him on the plane before embarking on a two-day visit.

The leader of more than one billion Roman Catholics called for Spain and the whole of Europe to have a "meeting between faith and secularism and not a confontation."

The pontiff, wearing an ankle-length white cloak, waved as he emerged from a fog-enshrouded Alitalia plane from Rome to battle for the Church's core beliefs against a slide towards easy divorce, abortion and gay marriage.

He will spend the day in Santiago de Compostela before heading to Barcelona in the evening and then on Sunday sanctifying Antoni Gaudi's unfinished masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia church.

Up to 200,000 people are expected to be in medieval Santiago, where Benedict XVI will pray at the tomb of Saint James the Apostle, discovered by a hermit in 813, and now resting in a sprawling 12th century cathedral.

Saint James, later to be known as the Slayer of the Moors, became a symbol to rally Christian Spain, then pinned down by the Moors to the northern strip of the peninsula.

More than 1,000 years later the Church is fighting back again, this time against a perceived slide away from the core beliefs of Christianity: the sanctity of life and lifelong marriage between a man and woman.

Children as young as 10, elderly men and women, monks, nuns, priests and some in wheelchairs, queued in the cold outside the vast Plaza Obradoiro where the pontiff is to celebrate mass at around 4:30pm (1530 GMT).

"I'm not at all tired, I'm emotional," said Jose Antonio, a 30-year-old Spanish monk who had stood at the top of the queue since at 6:30pm (1730 GMT) Friday.

Abilarolo Gomez, a 73-year-old farmer, said he had spent "a very agreeable night" waiting, without sleep, since 9:00 pm on Friday after walking a pilgrimage of 450 kilometres (280 miles).

All must pass through tight security, including bag searches, to enter the Plaza Obradoiro, where a massive sound stage has been set up for the pope to celebrate mass in front of some 7,000 people.

Many people carried huge banners or the yellow and white flag of the Vatican saying "Welcome Benedict XVI", or wore yellow neckerchiefs or scarves bearing the pope's picture.

One group of young people sang Christian songs accompanied by guitars, while others carried lighted candles and many chanted "Viva el Papa!" ("Long Live the Pope!).

The pope, spiritual leader of more than one billion Roman Catholics, is sending a clear message to Spain, once a bastion of the Church but now on the European forefront of social changes he abhorrs.

Benedict will speak of "the roots of Christianity and the origins of Santiago de Compostela, and in great measure also the history of Europe," said Archbishop of Madrid Antonio Maria Rouco Varela.

"Europe was born with the pilgrimage to Santiago and with the pilgrimage to Rome," he told the radio station Cope. In this way, "Spain and Europe are born with a destiny marked by faith in Jesus Christ resurrected."

The Church was an all-powerful presence in the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, who died in 1975, but with democracy came an end to restrictions on politics, behaviour and sexual mores.

Under the Socialist Party of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero the country has gone far further, allowing gay marriage, speedier divorce and easier abortions.

Of particular concern to the Church, a law passed four months ago lets women have abortion on demand up to 14 weeks of pregnancy, and in case of risk to the life and health of the mother until 22 weeks.

Girls of 16 and 17 can get an abortion without their parents' consent if they face a risk of family violence, threats, or pressure.

In eight years the proportion of Spaniards who describe themselves as Roman Catholic has dropped to 73 percent from 80 percent and those attending weekly mass to 13 percent from 20 percent.

© 2010 AFP

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