Madrid faces protests during visit of Pope Benedict


A PAPAL visit to Madrid this month to greet hundreds of thousands of young Roman Catholics has revived a bitter debate over the role of the church in Spanish politics and angered secular protesters who say their websites were censored this week.

Pope Benedict XVI will arrive on August 18th to celebrate World Youth Day in the Spanish capital, where supporters from around the world have started gathering for celebrations and public appearances that will close some city centre avenues for up to six days.

Dozens of liberal and left-wing groups demanding a secular state say they will stage at least one march against the visit, despite being repeatedly refused permission to demonstrate by the authorities. A top trade union has also called a strike on the city’s metro network to coincide with the visit.

Protesters – who criticise the church for everything from clerical child abuse to its support for the Franco regime – are incensed by official attempts to block social media sites through which demonstrations are being planned.

Attempts made this week in a Madrid public library to access blogs and websites where protest plans were discussed produced the message “Access denied due to content policy – you are trying to access unauthorised content.”

The Madrid municipality rejected censorship claims, saying the filter they use denies access to sites that may contain sexual content or allow for illegal downloading of films and music. Some of the blocked websites, however, had no such content.

Braulio Rodríguez, archbishop of Toledo, dismissed the anti-papal protests as “ridiculous and over the top” and said: “Spain’s problems will not be solved by the pope not coming.” However, Tomás Gómez, Socialist leader in the Madrid region, supported the right of the demonstrators to hold a march and questioned the cost of the youth day celebrations at a time of economic crisis.

Many of those critical of the pope’s visit are self-styled indignados (the indigant ones), like the anti-establishment protesters who occupied Puerta del Sol, the square in central Madrid, for a month from May 15th.

One of their complaints is that politicians of the right-wing Popular Party that runs Madrid have granted pilgrims – but not the resident poor – 80 per cent discounts on public transport.

“I’m not against the pope’s visit, but the question is how the government will finance it in such a time of crisis when over 20 per cent of the population are unemployed,” said Enrique Vizan, an indignado.

The organisers of World Youth Day deny the €50 million event receives state support, saying the budget is audited by PricewaterhouseCoopers and sponsored by companies such as Telefónica.

“The pope’s visit does not cost Spain anything,” said Yago de la Cierva, the event’s executive director. “It creates employment and is attracting tourism. It also proves Spain can host a large-scale event which puts it in good stead for the 2020 Olympic bid.”

So far, 428,000 people have registered to attend, but Mr de la Cierva said this could treble in coming days. – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2011)