Thousands of protesters have marched in Madrid against the cost of the pope's visit to Spain this week.

Protesters of all ages walked in the old city centre of the mainly Catholic country on Wednesday under the slogan, "Nothing for the pope from my taxes".

"It is costing a lot of money for the Spanish state which is going through a bad period," said 55-year old Rosa Vazquez, carrying a placard saying "Religion is the opium of the people, don't drug yourself with our taxes."

Pope Benedict XVI will arrive in Madrid on Thursday for a four-day visit culminating in a mass on Sunday in the Cuatro Vientos aerodrome which over two million people are expected to attend.

He is to attend a Roman Catholic youth festival, World Youth Day, in a central Madrid park on Saturday at which pilgrims are to participate in a mass confession.

Clashes

At a time of economic hardship in Spain, the cost of the papal visit has triggered heavy criticism from disaffected youths, gay and lesbian and transgender groups, atheists and even some priests.

The crowds walked peacefully through the centre shouting chants against the visit and waving banners reading "The pope travels, the pope pays".

Near Spain's central Sol square, the protesters met with pro-pope chants and with some people waving Vatican flags.

Critics have put the cost of the visit at around 100m euros ($144m) but the government has declined to give a figure.

"We are not against the people celebrating the pope's visit, but we don't agree that we have to pay without anyone asking us," said 20-year old Nora.

Others were more critical, saying that the church had too much power and held banners with messages such as "Papa don't Preach".

Abortion 'forgiveness'

Earlier on Wednesday, the Vatican granted priests the right to forgive the sin of abortion when hearing the confessions of hundreds of thousands of young people attending the religious youth festival.

The termination of pregnancy is a sin punishable by excommunication under church law.

"This (concession) is to make it easier for the faithful who attend the World Youth Day celebrations to obtain the fruits of divine grace," the Madrid archdiocese said in a statement on its website.

Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, Spain's prime minister and an open secularist, has clashed with the church over abortion and has changed the law during his tenure to make it easier for women seeking to terminate unwanted pregnancies.

Source: Agencies