ROME (Reuters) - Pope Benedict cancelled a scheduled speech at Rome’s most prestigious university after protests by students and professors over the Church’s views on science threatened to overshadow the event, scheduled for Thursday.
The protests had begun with a petition by 67 professors who portrayed the Pope as a backward theologian who put religion before science and should not be allowed to speak.
After resisting calls from protesters to scrap the visit to La Sapienza university, the Vatican said on Tuesday the Pope had decided to postpone the trip.
He had been due to speak at the inauguration of La Sapienza’s 2008 academic year and the Vatican said the Pontiff would still provide a text copy of his speech.
“I am very disappointed. You don’t have to share the Pope’s ideas but you should let him speak,” the Italian government minister in charge of universities, Fabio Mussi, told reporters.
The protesters cited a speech he gave nearly two decades ago, saying it showed he would have favoured the Church’s 17th century heresy trial against Galileo for teaching the Earth revolved around the sun. The Pope’s supporters denied that.
The controversy ballooned into a fierce debate that divided Italians, with protesters questioning the Church’s role in secular society and the Church and free-speech advocates accusing the protesters of censorship.
“I think the Pope’s visit is not a good thing because science doesn’t need religion. The university is open to every form of thought but religion isn’t,” said Andrea Sterbini, a computer science professor and one of the signatories.
The debate drew unusual allies for the Pope. Outspoken critic of the Church Dario Fo, a Nobel prize winner, defended the Pope’s right to speak.
“I’m against any form of censorship because the right to (free) speech is sacred,” the writer told La Repubblica daily.
Some students staged a sit-in on Tuesday, occupying the offices of the chancellor. They had declared an “anti-clerical” week and hung banners protesting against the Pope’s visit.
“The Pope is holding La Sapienza hostage. Free the thinkers,” read one banner.
It was a sign of the times at La Sapienza, which was founded by a pope 705 years ago.
Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian bishop’s conference, said the university could be “humiliated” by the protests, and become “hostage to the logic of noise and blasphemy over intelligence”.
(Editing by Ralph Boulton)
Writing by Phil Stewart, additional reporting by Cristiano Corvino and Antonio Denti
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