Thousands protest pope's Germany visit

Protesters say they are against Benedict XVI's stance on gay rights, artificial contraception and other issues.

    The pope's address to the German parliament earlier in the day was boycotted by several members [AFP]

    Several thousand protesters have marched against the pope's visit to Germany, attacking his views on issues such as gay rights and the sex abuse scandals that have engulfed the Catholic church in recent years.

    Police and organisers said that the rally in Berlin's Potsdamer Platz on Thursday attracted up to 10,000 people, as Benedict the XVI delivered a speech a the nearby Reichstag parliament building.

    Protesters said they were demonstrating against the pontiff's stance on gay rights, artificial contraception and the sex abuse scandal, as well as the Catholic church's 1933 concordant with the Nazi government.

    Several dozen leftist deputies also boycotted the head of the Catholic Church's speech in the parliament, expressing concerns regarding the separation of Church and State.

    One MP, Rolf Schwanitz from the centre-left Social Democrats, told AFP: "In our constitution, it says that all religions should be treated equally.

    "For me, this invitation [to speak in parliament] does not meet this criterion. They say that he has been invited as a head of state, but the Vatican only has a couple of hundred of inhabitants," added the deputy.

    He said it made no sense "to invite the head of a dwarf state to speak before the Bundestag".

    Reaching out

    Earlier on Thursday, the pope called for closer ties to be established between the Catholic and Jewish faiths.

    Speaking after a meeting with Jewish community leaders in Berlin, Benedict said he was convinced that "trust has grown between the Jewish people and the Catholic Church".

    "At the same time it is clear to us all that a loving relationship of mutual understanding between Israel and the Church, each respecting the being of the other, still has further to grow and needs to be built into the heart of our proclamation of the faith."

    Benedict arrived in Germany on his first state visit to his homeland earlier on Thursday.

    Many Germans leaving Church

    The Bavarian-born 84-year-old pontiff was met on a red carpet at Berlin's Tegel airport on Thursday morning by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Christian Wulff, at the start of his four-day visit.

    German Christians are almost exactly divided between Catholics and Protestants and official statistics show that members of both faiths are leaving the Church in droves.

    Observers put this down in part to revelations last year of widespread child molestation by German priests over the last several decades, with top archbishop Robert Zollitsch admitting the Church had "failed" in its response.

    Benedict said on Thursday he could understand those leaving the Roman Catholic Church due to the sexual abuse scandals of recent years.

    "I can understand that in the face of such reports, people, especially those close to victims, would say 'this isn't my Church anymore'," he told reporters on his plane from Rome.

    He also said he had nothing against the planned demonstrations during his German visit as long they remained "civil".

    "It's normal in a free society marked by strong secularism," he said. "I respect those who speak out."

    Before his departure, Benedict called for an "ethical renewal" in Italy as the country struggles to stave off a financial crisis amid fresh sex and corruption scandals in the government.

    He said he wished for "an increasingly intense ethical renewal for the good of beloved Italy" in a telegram to Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, sent as the pontiff set off on a four-day trip to Germany.

    It is a tradition for the pope to send a message to the Italian president when leaving on international visits.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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