Pope visits Germany – but protestors are waiting

As anger mounts at the visit of the pope to Germany, local authorities have banned demonstrations in the vicinity of papal events. The German-born Ratzinger will begin his three day tour on 22 September in Berlin before continuing to Erfurt and Freiburg. Anti-Pope rallies are expected in all three cities. Unlike in Madrid two weeks ago, the protests are not about the cost of the visit, but about the Vatican’s reactionary teachings on birth control, abortion and the rights of homosexuals.

Plans are afoot to challenge the ban on protests by some of the 54 groups that have come together to oppose the pope’s visit. “It must be possible to hold a peaceful demonstration within ear-shot of the Bundestag,” said German Gay and Lesbian Association director Joerg Steinert. The association has spoken out against the decision to allow the Pope to speak in the German parliament.

The protesters want to rally at the Brandenburg Gate at the same time Pope Benedict is due to address parliament.

Officials gave no explanation for the ban. When Ratzinger’s predecessor, Karol Wotjyla, visited Berlinin 1996 he faced hecklers who hurled abuse and made obscene gestures as he made his way by Popemobile to the Brandenburg Gate for a farewell ceremony. Some shouted “Go to hell” and “Get lost” while a naked woman protester streaked in front of the glass-sided Popemobile. Some media reports said the vehicle was also hit by eggs or tomatoes.

Meanwhile, Berlin’s mayor, Klaus Wowereit is put into a difficult position – he is obliged to say that he welcomes the pope’s visit to Germany later this month, but he’ll be doing it through gritted teeth. Mr Wowereit is openly gay and living with a partner, something that he isn’t sure the pope is aware of. “I assume that the Pope will be informed, if it interests him, that I live with a boyfriend,” he said.

Mr Wowereit isn’t really able to officially condone the protests that are planned during the visit, but he says (not very diplomatically): “I understand, and it’s also in order, that citizens are using the Pope’s visit to draw attention here to the fact that the Catholic Church’s teaching represent theses that belong in past centuries, but not in the modern era,” he said. I have great understanding for these protests, assuming they take place within a peaceful and democratic framework. The Catholic Church will have to live with that. This also does not contradict the hospitality we should show during a state visit.”

Wowereit will meet the Pope on September 22 before the Mass at Olympic Stadium, where Ratzinger will sign the city’s golden guest book.

His welcome for the pontiff will be formal, he said. “The mayor is the mayor of this city – and that means that state visitors will be treated according to protocol and according to hospitality. This means that my personal life should not play the leading role,” said Wowereit.

He also said that Berlin’s new archbishop Rainer Maria Woelki was far from being progressive, but said there appeared to be an opportunity for dialogue. Mr Wowereit is obviously an optimist if he thinks that the Vaticanwill in any way “dialogue” with someone who defies its rules so openly. Or, in fact, hold dialogue with anyone at all. The Vatican, in its own eyes, rules the world and has no need to discuss anything.

Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, said: “It seems the pope’s visits are now always accompanied by protest. But the Vatican is becoming wise to the disastrous PR effects these protests have on the perception they try so hard to create that the pope is universally loved and respected. Some commentators have made the point that there were vast crowds of Catholics to greet the pope in Madrid last month and hardly any sign of protestors. They seem blind to the brutality with which the police drove those opposed to the visit out of the city centre.

“It looks like the pope’s little helpers in Germany are similarly seeking to dampen down any sign of dissent. First there is the ban on assembly and if anyone defies it, police brutality will follow, and the protestors will be branded as violent thugs. Soon it will be a dangerous business to express any direct opposition to these visits.”