While child abuse by Catholic priests in a number of countries has sparked worldwide coverage, the protests in Britain will encompass a wider range of issues.
Abuse victims, secularists, pro-abortion groups, atheists, humanists, demonstrators calling for women priests and protesters angry at the cost of the visit are joining forces, culminating with a “Protest the Pope” rally.
Organisers insist they will not disrupt events during the four-day trip starting Thursday, the first ever state visit to Britain by a pope.
Nonetheless, their campaign threatens to take the shine off what promises to be a landmark for Catholicism in Britain.
In a bid to calm the waters, the Archbishop of Southwark, Peter Smith, met representatives of the demonstrators, including high-profile rights protester Peter Tatchell.
“Pope Benedict is totally out of step with modern, liberal British values. People reject his reactionary stance against women priests, gay equality and condom use to prevent the spread of HIV,” Tatchell has said.
“We don’t believe that a pope with such anti-humanitarian views should be honoured with a state visit. We also object that part of these visits are being funded by the taxpayer at a time of austerity.
“We aim to show the pope that his collusion with the cover-up of child sex abuse and his opposition to universal human rights is rejected by many British people.”
The “Protest the Pope” march is due to take place in London on Saturday, starting from Hyde Park — just hours before the pope is due to hold a prayer vigil there – and head to the prime minister’s Downing Street residence.
Organisers expect around 2 000 people to take part.
“There’s an awful lot of anger about this particular pope and we could well find ourselves with quite a big crowd,” Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society (NSS), has said.
“The campaign is really an ad hoc collection of groups with a particular beef with this pope.
“It’s better for us to try and speak with a unified voice. We can’t do it individually because he won’t listen.”
The NSS is mainly against the taxpayer funding half of the trip, at a cost of up to 12 million pounds (18.5 million dollars, 14.5 million euros).
Sanderson added: “We don’t want this to be seen as an anti-Catholic gesture. We’re saying the Church could be much more compassionate if this pope was not in charge of it.
“We just want to ensure that the whole issue of child abuse has been aired in a way that can’t be avoided.”
March organisers say Pope Benedict is unsuitable for a state visit for what they claim is his opposition to condoms, promotion of segregated education, anti-abortion stance, opposition to gay rights, failure to tackle child abuse and the Vatican’s rehabilitation of Holocaust deniers and appeasers.
Catholic Voices, an organisation which seeks to respond to criticism of the papal visit, said external critics of the contemporary Church proffered some misguided views, while those within the faith were in the minority.
“We’ve had 25 years of Aids in Africa and the virus has continued to spread, despite widespread condom use,” coordinator Austen Ivereigh told AFP.
“A technocratic, condoms-based solution to Aids, as if this alone can solve Aids is just simply not true,” he said, claiming that the Church cared for at least a third of all Aids sufferers.
Despite their disagreements, demonstrators and organisers alike face the same problem: conquering public indifference.
A poll for public theology think tank Theos this month dovetailed with an Ipsos Mori survey which found that two thirds were indifferent to the pope’s visit.
Meanwhile a ComRes poll of 2,005 British adults found 79 percent said they had “no personal interest” in the visit.
Theos director Paul Wolley said: “It is only a relatively small proportion of people who are actively opposed to the visit itself. On the whole, the public is more disengaged than hostile.” – Sapa-AFP