12,000 gather in city to demonstrate against visit

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PROTESTERS from around the UK descended on London to demonstrate against the Pope's visit yesterday.

• Peter Tatchell: 'No immunity'

As many as 12,000 people - far more than expected - gathered to protest on issues including gay rights, the use of condoms and the Catholic Church's response to the clergy sex abuse scandal.

The march was supported by organisations including the British Humanist Association (BHA) and the National Secular Society (NSS).

Campaigners held aloft banners stating "The Pope is wrong - put a condom on" and "Pope protects paedophile priests" as they joined the march.

Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell criticised the use of taxpayers' money to fund the papal visit.

He said: "The Vatican isn't a state, it is not recognised as a country by the UN.

"To give the Pope head of state status is wrong and to give him immunity against prosecution is wrong - no one should be above the law."

Comedian Al Murray also joined the throng of protesters. "Like a lot of people I am a perplexed that it is a state visit. The Pope's opposition to condoms kills people," he said. "It is all very well him lecturing us on morals but he should look at his own organisation's view."

Terry Sanderson, president of the NSS, said: "This is a secular country, we are a secular nation. "The Pope should take his religion home with him and leave us to arrange our society as we want it. The days of popes is over. We are no longer listening to religious leaders - we get our morality from other places."

Andrew Copson, president of the BHA, said he was "very pleased" by the turnout, which he said was around 12,000.

"There is such a broad range of concerns that people have - women's rights, gay rights, contraception and sex abuse."

He said that among the protesters were Catholics who were themselves against the Vatican's stance on issues such as women's ordination and homosexuality.

Ahead of marches setting off from Hyde Park Corner to their Downing Street destination, protesters heard from a victim of clerical sex abuse.

Sue Cox, 63, from Gaydon, Warwickshire, told the gathered crowds that the Pope's visit was "egotistical, arrogant and selfish".

She added: "How dare he suggest that secularism does not accept or tolerate traditional values?"