Student protest prevents Papal visit

Jennifer Shaw 26 January 2008

A crowd of 200 000 congregated in the Vatican on Sunday as a show of support for the Pope after he was forced to cancel a visit to Rome’s leading university last week due to violent protests.

Pope Benedict XVI was due to be taking part in an inaugural ceremony to open the new academic year at La Sapienza on 17th January. But by Tuesday 15th he cancelled the visit after mounting pressure from within the university.

Protests were sparked after a letter containing 67 signatures of science professors and lecturers was presented to the university rector Renato Guarini, calling for the invite to be withdrawn.

The campaign, headed by Physics professor Marcello Cini, particularly took issue with a speech Joseph Ratzinger had made in 1991 in which he quoted the Austrian philosopher Feyerabend who described the trial of Galileo as “reasonable and just.”

The letter referred to these words as humiliating and offensive to those teachers “who dedicate their lives to the advancement and spread of knowledge.”

Amongst other protests, a group of 50 left-wing students staged a sit-in demonstration in the rector’s office. Hundreds of police had to be called in to maintain security.

Some students also admitted to planning a gay rights march and said they would play loud rock music on campus if the Pope’s visit were to go ahead. Pope Benedict once described rock music as “the devil’s work.”

On Thursday the ceremony was held under heavy security, with the Pope’s intended speech being read out by a lecturer.

It addressed the value of university education today and underlined that he did not seek “to impose faith on others authoritatively, as this can only be bestowed in liberty.”

Prime Minister Romano Prodi condemned the demonstrations as provoking a climate, “which does no honour to Italy’s traditions of civilisation and tolerance.”

Yet this seems to have done little to damage the Pope’s popularity amongst the Italian people.

On Sunday people from all over Italy filled St Peter’s Square at the Vatican wielding banners such as “Long Live Freedom of thought!” in response to Cardinal Camillo Ruini’s call to show solidarity with the Pope.

Ten thousand people also congregated in Piazza del Duomo in Milan where a large screen had been erected to broadcast the event. The Pope addressed the matter head on during the service, directing his speech to university students and calling for them to “always be respectful of the opinions of others”.

However the controversy has been reopened with comments made by Cardinal Agnolo Bagnasco who on Monday claimed that the Pope had been misadvised by the Italian authorities.

The government has denied the accusation maintaining that the Italian state “absolutely guaranteed the security and ordered running of the Pope’s visit.”

Rector Guarini has stated his intentions to reinvite the Pope to La Sapienza at a later date.

Jennifer Shaw