BERLIN Supporters of Pope Benedict's tour of Germany this week criticised on Wednesday politicians who expressed doubts over his conservative views, his planned speech to parliament and the cost of his visit.
With one day to go before his arrival, Berlin police began closing streets and imposing high-level security in parts of the capital where the German-born pontiff will appear at the beginning of his four-day tour.
As a foretaste of protests by gay and lesbian groups that may rally 20,000 people in Berlin, paint bombs were hurled at the Vatican embassy where he will stay in the gritty Neukoelln district and at a nearby Roman Catholic church.
German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich, a Protestant, criticised a group of 100 parliamentarians planning to boycott the pope's address to the Bundestag (lower house) on Thursday for "arrogance, narrow-mindedness and provincialism".
He told the Tagesspiegel daily the pope's address would be an opportunity for politicians to reflect on ethical issues.
Wolfgang Thierse, a deputy speaker, said some left-wingers supporting the boycott had put their case aggressively.
"No deputy will be forced to attend," he said. "No deputy who listens has to agree with the pope's views."
Thierse, a Catholic, said he too disagreed with Benedict on some issues. "But what does that have to do with parliament?" he asked on German Radio. "Can one speak in parliament only after passing an ideological test?"
FIRST VISIT TO PROTESTANT EAST
In contrast to Benedict's previous visits to mainly Catholic regions of Germany in 2005 and 2006, this trip takes him to the traditionally Protestant cities of Berlin and Erfurt, where atheism is strong after four decades of communism in the former East Germany.
The pope will also visit Etzelsbach, a rare Catholic enclave in the east, and the mostly Catholic city of Freiburg in the southwest before returning to Rome on Sunday evening.
The wave of pride and interest in the German pope after his election in 2005 has long faded, especially after he lifted the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying bishop in 2009 and after cases of clerical sexual abuse of youths came to light in 2010.
Despite that, the Springer publishing group draped its headquarters in Berlin with a 17-story poster reproducing the front page of its popular Bild daily newspaper announcing Benedict's election with the words "We are Pope!"
After his address to the Bundestag, Benedict will meet Protestant leaders in the same Erfurt monastery where 16th-century reformer Martin Luther was a monk before breaking with the Vatican.
About 240,000 people are expected to attend his open-air Masses in Berlin's Olympic Stadium, on the main square in Erfurt and at an airfield in Freiburg. He also plans to meet former Chancellor Helmut Kohl while in the southwestern city.
(Additional reporting by Stephen Brown; Writing by Tom Heneghan; editing by Elizabeth Piper)