Pope Benedict brings out both pilgrims and protesters in London

By staff writers
September 19, 2010

Some 80,000 people turned out to welcome the Pope in central London yesterday, while 11,000 joined a protest against his state visit.

On a day of high and sometimes polarised passions, the 'Protest the Pope' coalition's march to Downing Street proceeded from Hyde Park Corner through the capital city to Whitehall.

At the same time, thousands more journeyed to Hyde Park, where Pope Benedict XVI, leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, led an evening prayer vigil on the eve of the Beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman in Birmingham today (19 September 2010).

One keynote speaker at the rally, human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson, who has argued that the Vatican's claim to statehood is "a legal fiction", said: "We are here today to celebrate our faith in liberty of conscience; our faith in equality; our faith in human rights."

The demonstration mixed good natured protest with some sweeping denunciations.

Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, which claims that its campaign is not anti-Catholic, told the rally: "The Pope should take his religion home with him."

In another angry speech, science educator turned atheist campaigner Dr Richard Dawkins described the pontiff as an "enemy of humanity".

Others tried to build bridges as well as criticise. Andrew Copson, CEO of the British Humanist Association, said that among those rallying were Catholics concerned about the Vatican's stance on issues such as women's ordination and homosexuality.

One priest, Father Bernard Lynch, spoke to the crowd, but no Christian or faith groups joined the coalition, put off by the 'Nope Pope' stance, which humanist philosopher Julian Baggini wrote in The Guardian newspaper was "not a slogan of a campaign that is doing its best to bring dissatisfied Catholics along with it."

He wrote on Friday 17 September: "The kinds of protests against the pope we're seeing in the UK are creating divisions at a time when mutual understanding is already at a low... [H]ow many more [Catholics] could have found common cause with their secular brethren had not the latter opposed the trip outright?"

But speaking to the BBC News Channel, human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, one of the Protest organisers said: "This is not an attack on Catholic people or the Catholic faith. We are critical of certain policies of the Pope."

He continued: "When [the pontiff] says no woman is fit to be a priest, that's an insult to the whole of female humanity.

"When he says a husband must not use a condom to protect his wife from infection - even if he has HIV - that's irresponsible.

"And when he says that all gay people possess a tendency towards evil, that flies in the face of the Christian gospel of love and compassion.

"We know that many Catholics share our concerns. Only five per cent of Catholics in this country agree with the Pope's ban on contraception. Only 11 per cent of Catholics think that homosexuality is morally wrong.

"So there is a great depth of Catholic opinion which is in disagreement with this Pope and we support those Catholic people," stressed Tatchell.

One sexual abuse survivor, Sue Cox, 63, from Gaydon, Warwickshire, told the rally that she thought the Pope's visit was "egotistical, arrogant and selfish".

Her own experience of the Catholic Church was "pain, anger, fear, terror, disgust, lies, shame, violence, sneering, disdain, and disempowerment," she said.

Pope Benedict made a further public apology for clerical sex abuse on 18 September. He met for 40 minutes with five victims — four women and a man who came from Scotland, England and Wales — at the Vatican's ambassador's residence in Wimbledon.

The pontiff expressed "his deep sorrow and shame over what the victims and their families suffered," according to the Vatican, and said that the Church "is doing all in its power to investigate allegations, to collaborate with civil authorities and to bring to justice clergy and religious accused of these egregious crimes."

Meanwhile, details are still sketchy concerning six men, arrested on Friday, who it is alleged were involved in a plot to harm the Pope.


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