British police say 5 men arrested in London over alleged threat to pope during his UK visit

Friday, September 17, 2010

UK Police: 5 arrested in alleged threat to pope

LONDON — British police arrested five London street cleaners over an alleged threat to Pope Benedict XVI on Friday, the second day of a papal trip to Britain that has brought both a warm welcome from Catholics and renewed anger over the clerical sex abuse scandal.

The Vatican said the pope was calm despite the pre-dawn arrests and planned no changes to his schedule.

Acting on a tip, police detained the men, aged 26 to 50, under the Terrorism Act at a business in central London. They are being questioned at a London police station and have not been charged. Police said an initial search of that business and other related properties had not uncovered any hazardous items.

Westminster Council said the suspects worked as street cleaners for a contractor on its behalf.

Police said they received information about a potential threat against the pope overnight, prompting the armed operation to arrest the men early Friday.

Police declined to say whether the men were British or give details of their ethnicity, but there was no indication that it was a threat involving national security. Protesters and activists have previously been arrested under the country’s terrorism laws during high-profile events such as economic summits and state visits.

The pope’s visit has divided opinion in officially Protestant, highly secular Britain. The trip has been overshadowed by disgust over the Catholic Church’s clerical abuse scandal and opposition from secularists and those opposed to the church’s stances against homosexuality and using condoms to fight AIDS.

The pope’s security on this trip has been visibly higher than on previous foreign grips, and Vatican officials have acknowledged that Britain represents a higher security threat than the other European countries Benedict has visited this year, including Portugal, Malta and Cyprus.

News of the arrests came as the pope was meeting representatives of other religions, including Muslims and Jews, and stressing the need for mutual respect, tolerance and freedom to follow one’s conscience even after conversion from another religion.

The Vatican said the pope was informed of the arrests and was pleased he could stick to his schedule.

“We have compete trust in the police,” Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi told reporters. “The police are taking the necessary measures. The situation is not particularly dangerous.

“The pope is happy about this trip and is calm.”

The pontiff will meet Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams later Friday, head of the Anglican Communion, in a display of unity between the divided Christian churches. He also will address British politicians, businessmen and cultural leaders in Westminster Hall, where he is expected to press the need for using faith to help shape public policy.

On Saturday, he is to address thousands of pilgrims at an open-air service in London’s Hyde Park.

Benedict travels with his own security detail, headed by chief papal bodyguard Domenico Giani. Benedict’s white, bulletproof Popemobile is flanked by eight to 10 dark-suited bodyguards who jog alongside, scanning crowds for potential threats as the pope waves to well-wishers from inside.

There have been no major known attempts against Benedict; his predecessor Pope John Paul II survived an assassination attempt in 1981.

Benedict was knocked down at Christmas Eve Mass in 2009 by a mentally unstable woman who jumped the security barricade inside St. Peter’s Basilica. In 2007, a man jumped the barricade in St. Peter’s Square and grabbed the pope’s vehicle before being pushed to the ground by guards.

Benedict was nearly 30 minutes late for his first event Friday morning, with the Vatican attributing the delay at the time to logistical problems.

The pope was then given a boisterous welcome by thousands of cheering Catholic schoolchildren at a suburban London college, where he urged young people to ignore the shallow temptations of today’s “celebrity culture.”

“Having money makes it possible to be generous and to do good in the world, but on its own it is not enough to make us happy,” Benedict told the children. “We need to have the courage to place our deepest hopes in God alone, not in money, in a career, in worldly success or in our relationships with others, but in God.”

Benedict also told their teachers to make sure to provide the children with a trusting, safe environment — the second time in as many days that he has referred to the church sex abuse scandal. On Thursday, the pope acknowledged that the Roman Catholic Church had failed to act quickly or decisively enough to remove pedophile priests from ministry.

“Our responsibility toward those entrusted to us for their Christian formation demands nothing less,” Benedict said. “Indeed, the life of faith can only be effectively nurtured when the prevailing atmosphere is one of respectful and affectionate trust.”

Polls in Britain indicate widespread dissatisfaction with the way Benedict has handled the sex abuse scandal, with Catholics nearly as critical of him as the rest of the population.

Outside the London university hall, some 4,000 young students, outfitted in prim school uniforms and waving small white-and-yellow Holy See flags, serenaded the pontiff Friday with gospel hymns and songs.

The students, from England, Scotland and Wales, gave Benedict a tie-dyed stole and three books tracing the history of the Catholic Church in Great Britain. They presented the gifts to the pontiff as he sat on an enormous red throne on a stage decorated with children’s artwork.

The 83-year-old Benedict appeared relaxed and happy, gently greeting each child and kissing each on the head.

“For us, our school, it’s very important,” student Maresha Barnes, 13, said. “We have a picture of the pope in the lunch hall.”

Just before the pope left, a member of the his security team spotted 39-year-old Becky Gorrod, who had been standing outside the gates of St. Mary’s holding her 8-month-old daughter Alice. Mother and child were ushered in to meet the pontiff as the crowd cheered.

“My husband’s never going to believe me,” Gorrod told journalists afterward. “They opened the car door, and the pope got out. Then the (pacifier) fell out of Alice’s mouth, and the pope bent down and picked it up! The pope! How mad is that?”

She said the pope then kissed Alice on the forehead.

A few blocks away, about 30 people protested, holding up inflated condoms and posters. “Condoms are not crimes,” read one. Another read: “Science flies you to the moon: religion flies you into buildings.”

Michael Clark, a 60-year-old cleaner, said he was protesting because he was gay and annoyed that the pope’s visit — which is expected to cost British taxpayers 12 million pounds ($18.7 million) for security — was being funded by the state.

“That means it’s being supported by taxpayers and people who may not have the same ideas,” Clark said. “Sexuality is not evil.”

Benedict began his four-day U.K. state visit on Thursday, greeted by Queen Elizabeth II at Holyroodhouse Palace in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Abuse scandals involving Catholic priests rocked the church in Britain more than a decade ago, sparking a 2001 report advising that all church officials, including volunteers, be subject to police checks and any allegations of abuse investigated swiftly. The Catholic Church in Britain has since prided itself on its response.

More recently, two former monks at Buckfast Abbey School were sentenced in 2007 for sexually abusing boys. And last year a monk at Ealing Abbey in London was sentenced for sexually abusing boys at an affiliated school.

Catholics are a minority in Britain at 10 percent, and up until the early 19th century they endured harsh persecution and discrimination and were even killed for their faith. King Henry VIII broke with Rome in the 16th century after he was denied a marriage annulment.

Associated Press Writers Raphael G. Satter, Jill Lawless, Jennifer Quinn and Danica Kirka contributed to this report.

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