Catholics join protests against Australian restrictions for Pope's visit

By Ecumenical News International
July 8, 2008

Roman Catholic social justice advocates have joined in criticism of new laws restricting protests during World Youth Day in Sydney, which Pope Benedict XVI will attend in his first visit to Australia - reports Matthew Fenwick.

The 15-20 July 2008 World Youth Day is hosted by the Catholic Church in Sydney. Under New South Wales state government laws, which came into effect on 1 July, protesters can be fined up to 5500 Australian dollars (US$5300) for causing annoyance or inconvenience to youth day participants.

The Edmund Rice Centre, an Australian Catholic advocacy organisation, claimed that the laws introduced in New South Wales to restrict protests are contrary to Catholic traditions of social justice. "These laws significantly dampen our right to freedom of speech and to demonstrate inside or outside the church," a spokesperson for the centre, John Sweeney, told Ecumenical News International on 4 July.

Separately, Germany's Bertelsmann Foundation found in a survey entitled "Australia is not ''God's own country'", that when the Pope travels there he will be arrive in one of the least religious nations in the Western world.

Although two-thirds of Australians identify themselves as Christians, religion plays an important role in the minds and everyday lives of only a minority according to the Religion Monitor, an international survey carried out by the Bertelsmann Foundation, and released on 4 July.

Regarding the new laws introduced in New South Wales, Sweeney questioned whether World Youth Day organisers are acting consistently with Christian principles.

"The Church has to recognise that Jesus was an annoying and offending character to the religious leaders of his time. If religious authorities now are going to allow the perception that they are blessing the State prohibiting that, they are betraying their Christian roots," he stated. Sweeney said that the Edmund Rice Centre may lobby the New South Wales government to withdraw the protest restrictions.

A World Youth Day spokesperson, however, told ENI that the Catholic Church had not requested any special measures to prevent protests. "The Catholic Church supports people's right to protest. We're fine with that, as long as they do it in a peaceful manner," the spokesperson stated.

Organisations including the NoToPope Coalition have said they plan to protest about issues such as the Catholic Church's position on sexuality.

Before Benedict's planned visit to Australia, the Bertelsmann Foundation did a representative international survey of 21,000 people, and found that 28 percent of Australia's population see themselves as not at all religious, with religious practices and beliefs barely featuring in their lives.

A similar number classify themselves as deeply religious (25 percent) whilst 44 percent of Australians say they consider themselves religious but that religion does not play a central role in their lives.

A total of 48 percent of Australians do not partake in personal prayer, and 52 percent never or very seldom visit a church, mosque, synagogue or temple for religious reasons, while 31 percent said that they did not believe in God or a divine power or in life after death. Religion scored lower than all other daily activities, with 50 percent of Australians considering religion the least important when compared to family, partners, work/career, leisure time and politics.

Link to survey:

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]

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