Friday, 19 August 2011

Times: Madrid protesters decry cost of €50 million Pope party

Thursday, August 18, 2011 , by AFP

Policemen standing between Catholic pilgrims (back) and protesters (front) during a demonstration against the public cost of the World Youth Day celebrations at the Puerta del Sol Square in Madrid, yesterday. Photo: Pedro Armestre/AFP

Protesters took to the streets in Madrid yesterday 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 to celebrate lavish World Youth Day events, more than 100 groups opposed to the visit marched yesterday evening.

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.

There is even a separate plan for a gay and lesbian “kiss-in” once the Pope arrives today.

But the outcry that has struck a chord with many – including some priests – is over the official €50.5 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, were joined 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 pilgrims, and the celebration will be a massive tourist boost for Spain.

But for many the celebration is jarring at a time when the economy is faltering, the government is making painful cuts and unemployment is at 20.89 per cent. For those under 25, the jobless rate is over 45 per cent.

“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 – also took part in the protest.

“Just months after visits to Santiago and Barcelona, Mr Ratzinger – Benedict XVI to the Catholics – persistent in his idea of ‘reconquering’ a country that he sees as veering away from its moral and religious programme, returns to Madrid,” the protesters said in a statement read out at the rally.

It appealed to all citizens, “regardless of their personal convictions”, to stop authorities from granting the Church “privileges that belong to past eras and an undemocratic heritage”.

Spanish gays and lesbians say they will hold a separate protest “kiss-in” after the Pope’s arrival on Thursday.

The kiss-in, being organised on Facebook, is to protest against the Church’s “moral condemnations of sexuality ”, said Jaime del Val, a spokesman for one of the gay groups involved, Asamblea Transmaricabollo de Sol.

When the Pope last visited Spain in November last year, he was confronted by a homosexual kiss-in in Barcelona.

About 200 gay men and women couples locked lips to demand the Church recognise their right to be gay as he paraded through Barcelona’s streets on November 7 in his transparent Popemobile.

For the August 16-21 Catholic celebrations, traffic has been barred in much of central Madrid and a huge white stage has been erected for events in the emblematic Cibeles Square.

Huge speakers blare out pop music through the day as hundreds of thousands of fans in floppy hats swelter 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 celebrates Mass there on Sunday morning at a white altar almost 200 metres long in front of a wave-shaped stage and under a giant parasol “tree”, made of interwoven golden rods.

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