Madrid protesters decry cost of pope party

MADRID, Aug 17, 2011 (AFP) - Thousands of protesters took to Madrid's streets Wednesday to decry the expense of a rock festival-style, million-strong youth party for Pope Benedict XVI at a time of economic crisis.

On the eve of the 84-year-old pontiff's arrival in the Spanish capital, in time for lavish World Youth Day celebrations, more than 100 groups opposed to the visit marched across central Madrid Wednesday evening.

AFP - AFP - A protester dressed as a condom holds a placard reading "They won't let me go to Africa" during a demonstration against the public cost of the World Youth Day celebrations

The joint protest unites many causes, including groups 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 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 showed 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."

Chants by the crowd included "God yes, Church No".

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

A statement by the protesters appealed to all citizens to stop authorities from granting the Church "privileges that belong to past eras and an undemocratic heritage."

Some pilgrims on the edge of the protest shouted "Long Live the Pope", as police kept watch.

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.

When the pope last visited Spain in November last year, he was confronted by a similar same-sex kiss-in in Barcelona.

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 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.

Pope Benedict 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 secular protest group, Europea Laica, said it hoped several thousand protesters would join the march.

"It is in defence of the construction of a secular state, the separation of the Church and state, and against the financing of the Churches by the state," said Europa Laica president Francisco Delgado.

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".

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