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Church fears low turnout for pope's Berlin visit

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Church fears low turnout for pope's Berlin visit
Photo: DPA
08:12 CET+01:00
Pope Benedict XVI plans to visit Berlin in September 2011, and even has a parliamentary address on his agenda. But the city's Catholic officials fear the pontiff will draw embarrassingly small crowds and may not hold any public services.

The visit falls on September 22 and 23, a Thursday and Friday. But Berlin Cardinal Georg Sterzinsky told daily Der Tagesspiegel that it may be difficult to gather large groups of people for a public mass on work days.

Instead Benedict should hold a small service for a few hundred people at the Regina Martyrum memorial church near the Plötzensee memorial, which honours victims of the Nazi regime, Sterzinsky said.

When former Pope John Paul II visited the German capital in 1996, worshippers almost filled the massive Olympia stadium – but this was because many Poles came to see “their” pope, the paper said. But other scenes from the visit, such as the Popemobile being pummelled with tomatoes, will likely be avoided by the Church this time around, the paper said.

The pope's parliamentary address was announced by the chamber speaker on Thursday.

"I am pleased that the pope, on the occasion of his official visit, has accepted my invitation," Norbert Lammert said in the statement issued by the Bundestag on Thursday.

The pope's visit falls some 60 years after he was ordained as a priest.

Beyond Berlin, he is due to travel to Freiburg in the southwest of the country and Erfurt in the former communist east.

It will be Benedict's first state visit to Germany, following appearances in the western city of Cologne while it was hosting the World Youth Day event in 2005 and his native region of Bavaria in 2006, which was declared a private visit.

The election of then cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in April 2005 to succeed the late Pope John Paul II was a source of great pride in Germany, whose population is about 30 percent Roman Catholic.

But sexual abuse scandals involving priests have done serious damage in Germany, with a major public outcry and a wave of members leaving the Church.

The 83-year-old pontiff has himself faced allegations that, as Cardinal Ratzinger when he headed the Vatican's watchdog for morals and doctrinal issues, and earlier as the archbishop of Munich, he failed to take action against paedophile priests.

The scheduled parliamentary address was met with criticism from some politicians on Friday.

Green party parliamentarian Christian Ströbele said he would leave the parliament chamber during the speech.

“I think nothing of this,” he told daily Mitteldeutsche Zeitung, adding that he'd left the chamber when former President George W. Bush had spoken as well.

But Ströbele and other Green party critics were met with angry retorts from conservative Christian Democrats (CDU).

“The Greens are just against everyone and everything,” CDU general secretary Hermann Gröhe told daily Die Welt, adding that he hoped the Greens would warm to the idea over the holidays and realise that the Pope's visit was a “great honour for the parliament.”

But opposition centre-left Social Democrat Rolf Schwanitz also said he was not certain the visit was a good idea.

“I have reservations,” said the founder of an SPD group called Laizisten in der SPD, or “Lay people in the SPD,” which advocates a strong separation of church and state.

The Local/AFP/DAPD/ka

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