Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Spain Thursday for a week-long Catholic youth festival in Madrid amid violent protests over public funds being used for the religious event.
While a papal trip to one of the world’s most Catholic countries has rarely caused such an outcry, Pope Benedict’s visit comes amid the worst economic slump in decades and at a moment of growing unrest among the country’s young people.
On Wednesday, at least 11 people were detained in the demonstrations and eight – including three police officers – were injured after protesters clashed with some of the thousands of Catholic visitors in the heart of downtown Madrid.
The pope’s visit will cost an estimated 50 million euros ($72 million), according to organizers, and involves closing off much of downtown Madrid. Private companies will contribute a large portion of the money for the event, but Spain will also have to cover many of the expenses. An exact breakdown of the overall economic effect is still unknown.
“It’s absurd how much has been spent. I get my salary cut and the government’s spends a fortune in this,” says Maia, a nurse who didn’t want to give her last name when asked about the antipapal protests she didn’t participate in. “It’s fine that the Pope comes, but not if we pay for it.”
While Spain has been a Catholic bastion for centuries, in recent years the Vatican has clashed with governmental leaders here over the country’s turn toward secularism as they have legalized gay marriage, banned mandatory religious education in public schools, and eased abortion restrictions.
But even though the Catholic Church has seen its support erode here, protesters largely were not lashing out against the pope’s religious mission – to advance Catholicism among young people – but angered by the public support for the trip as Spain faces more austerity cuts and the debt crisis continues to hammer the European economy.
In Spain, around 21 percent of the population is unemployed, welfare services have been cut, growth is stagnating, and thousands are losing their homes.
The Catholic pilgrims awaiting the pope’s arrival didn’t see any problem with the state funding part of his visit.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with what the government is doing. It’s not an expense but an investment,” says Verónica Chávez, a Venezuelan law student who camped out in front of the flashy pulpit that was raised for the pope’s visit in front of one of Madrid’s most iconic building.
“We are here to spend, even if we are just pilgrims, and that helps Spain,” she says.
Officials in Madrid say the pope’s visit, which was planned long before the current economic crisis, could generate as much as 150 million euros ($215 million) in revenues from tourists.
The antipapal visit protest was called by several secular organizations. They were joined by the 15-M youth movement that has been waging almost weekly protests since May over the economic handling of the euro debt crisis.
Even a group of Spanish priests criticized the Vatican for lavish spending that contrasts with Spain’s economic woes.
“It’s been necessary to form a pact with the economic and political powers which reinforces the image of the church as a privileged institution, close to power, and the social scandal this implies, especially in the context of the economic crisis,” the priests said in an open letter in June.