ROME (Reuters) - Students at Italy’s top public university protested against the Roman Catholic Church on Thursday after forcing Pope Benedict to cancel a visit.
Riot police stood guard near the loud but peaceful march at Rome’s La Sapienza university, which was founded by a pope more than 700 years ago and is now at the centre of a national debate about the role of religion in secular society.
Students marched in the rain with banners reading “Freedom for the University”, after decrying what they view as Church meddling in Italian affairs through its public stance on issues like abortion, gay rights and euthanasia.
The tone was different inside at the ceremonies marking the start of the academic year, with speakers warning of censorship of religious leaders in the name of secularism after the Pope decided on Tuesday to scrap his appearance.
The speech the Pontiff had been due to deliver was read aloud by a faculty member to a standing ovation and shouts of “Viva il Papa” from a group of students.
“Ideological vetoes of any kind are unacceptable. Everyone must have space and be respected, whatever their opinion,” Renato Guarini, La Sapienza’s chancellor, told the university.
He said he planned to invite the Pope again.
The German Pontiff decision not to attend Thursday’s ceremony followed protests by a small but vociferous group of students and faculty members. Some occupied part of the campus to demand he stay away.
Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni described the episode as “unacceptable” during his address to the college.
“Intolerance can never be allowed to remove someone’s right to speak. Less still if ... it is Pope Benedict — a cultural, spiritual and moral reference point for millions,” he said.
Much of the controversy centered on a speech the Pope made in 1990, when the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger quoted an Austrian philosopher as saying the Church’s heresy trial against Galileo in the 17th century was “rational and just”.
By arguing the Earth revolved around the sun, Galileo had clashed with the Bible, which read: “God fixed the earth upon its foundation, not to be moved forever.”
The Pope’s defenders say the quotation did not reflect his own position, but that failed to quell the Rome protests.
Another quote the Pope used in 2006 upset Muslims around the world. In a speech at a university in his native Germany, he quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperor as saying Islam had only brought evil to the world and that it was spread by the sword.
The Pope said he was misunderstood and has several times expressed his esteem for Muslims.
A group of students at La Sapienza held a banner on Thursday reading “Eppur si muove” — “and yet it moves” — the phrase Galileo uttered after the Church condemned him, referring to the Earth moving.
“The fight pays off: Ratzinger’s visit to the university was rejected! We must continue to fight against the Vatican and its servants,” read a pamphlet distributed by some students.
edited by Richard Meares