Protesters take to Madrid streets over pope party

MADRID, Aug 17, 2011 (AFP) - Protesters take to Madrid's streets Wednesday to decry the cost of a rock festival-style, million-strong youth party for Pope Benedict XVI in the midst of an economic crisis.

On the eve of the 84-year-old pontiff's arrival in the Spanish capital to celebrate lavish World Youth Day events, more than 100 groups opposed to the visit plan to march Wednesday evening.

AFP - A woman leaves a bookshop displaying on its window Christopher Hitchens's book "God is not great", in Madrid, on August 17, 2011, on the eve of Pope Benedict XVI's arrival

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 for many -- including some priests -- is over the 50.5-million-euro ($73 million) price tag, excluding the cost of police and security, of the Madrid celebrations.

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

But for many the party is galling at a time that Spain's economy is faltering, the government is making painful cuts and unemployment is a towering 20.89 percent. For those under 25, it is over 45 percent.

"We criticise this scandalous show at at 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, soaring unemployment and political corruption -- are also taking part.

For the August 16-21 Catholic celebrations, all traffic has been halted in the centre of Madrid and a huge white stage has been erected in the emblematic Cibeles Square, where the pope will be welcomed Thursday.

Massive speakers blare out pop music through the day as hundreds of thousands of fans in floppy hats swelter in the sun or lounge on the grass.

The Church has opened 200 white confessionals in the form of boat sails along the main thoroughfare through Madrid's Retiro park, where priests and bishops from across the world have been taking confessions -- in 30 languages.

And the celebration has taken over grounds at an air base southwest of the capital, where the pope will hold a "Prayer Vigil" on Saturday evening and pilgrims will spend the night on an esplanade the size of 48 football pitches.

The pope celebrates 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.

"It is an attempt to re-Catholise the city of Madrid with confessionals in the parks and masses in the public squares," said Villar, arguing that the celebration's focus on the pope would not help the Church.

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 the state, and against the financing of the Churches by the state," said Europa Laica president Francisco Delgado.

Not all religious movements accept the protest.

One Roman Catholic group called Hazte Oir (Make Yourself Hear), 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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