Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Madrid yesterday for a million-strong Catholic youth festival after Spanish riot police swung batons in clashes with anti-Church protesters over the cost of the visit.
Benedict flew out of Rome at about 9:30am, hours after thousands took to the streets of Spain’s capital to decry the official 50 million euro (US$72 million) bill for the six-day World Youth Day festival at a time of economic hardship.
After an official greeting at Madrid-Barajas airport, he entered the city driving through the streets in his transparent popemobile to the Vatican ambassador’s residence, with thousands of pilgrims gathered along the route.
In the evening, the papal cortege was scheduled to head to the emblematic Plaza Cibeles in central Madrid for a welcoming ceremony. The Spanish air force were expected to perform a fly over, drawing the colors of the Vatican and Spanish flags in the sky.
Late into the night on the eve of the 84-year-old pontiff’s arrival, anti-papal protesters and hundreds of young Roman Catholics hurled insults at each other in Madrid’s central square, Puerta del Sol.
Lines of riot police separated the two sides.
Protesters chanted: “God, yes. Church, no,” “Not with my taxes,” “We are not the pope’s youth,” and “I am a sinner, sinner, sinner.”
Some taunted the faithful, shouting: “Nazi, nazi.”
In an interview before he was elected pope in 2005, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said he was an unwilling participant in the Hitler Youth movement.
“Long live the pope,” “We are the pope’s youth,” cried the pilgrims, some of whom sang Hallelujah while sitting on the ground and praying.
One protester against the papal visit, 18-year-old Ignacio, who declined to give his full name, bled from the nose.
“I was in the demonstration with my father and one of the Catholics punched me in the face,” he said.
They arrested seven people for “assaults on people in authority,” a national police spokeswoman said yesterday.
Eleven people were slightly injured, she said.
More than 100 protest groups took part, uniting many causes, including those seeking a change in the Church’s attitude to gay rights and those fighting for a clearer separation of Church and state.
The outcry that has struck a chord with many — including some priests — is over the official 50.5 million euro price tag, excluding the cost of police and security, of the Madrid celebrations.
Some protesters argue the real cost to taxpayers is more than 100 million euros including the policing, cleaning and discounts, such as half-price bus fares.
Organizers said most of the cost will be covered by a registration fee from the assembled pilgrims.
The Spanish government is currently battling to meet tough deficit reduction targets at a time when youth unemployment is running at more than 45 percent.