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‘Occupy’ protest forces closure of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London

- - Sunday, October 23, 2011

LONDON — Anti-capitalism protesters camped outside St. Paul's Cathedral have forced the iconic church to shut its doors for the first time since World War II out of concern for what it says are health and safety risks posed by the "Occupy the London Stock Exchange" movement, now entering its 10th day.

The protest is an extension of the "Occupy Wall Street" campaign in the U.S., which has spread across the States - and the Atlantic to London, where some 200 tents have been pitched blocks away from the city's financial center, their owners standing in solidarity with their American counterparts in calling for a more equitable distribution of wealth and an end to austerity measures.

In announcing the decision to close St. Paul's and move church events elsewhere, the Rev. Graeme Knowles said there has been a "good atmosphere" between protesters and cathedral staff. But he urged activists to recognize practical concerns about the demonstration, such as limited access the church itself.

"We have done this with a very heavy heart, but it is simply not possible to fulfill our day-to-day obligations to worshippers, visitors and pilgrims in current circumstances," Mr. Knowles said Friday, adding that the closure would last "until further notice."

Protesters quickly hit back, insisting that they have complied with all health and safety requests and calling on cathedral staff to provide more detail about its concerns.

Indeed, the bustling sea of campers seemed unfazed Sunday, with activists on one side of the church performing an impromptu, anti-capitalism rap as members of the Socialist Party solicited petition signatures at the foot of the Queen Anne statute near the main entrance.

Elsewhere, people held philosophy discussions under a white tent labeled "Tent City University."

"We're not here for trouble. We're here for peace," said Graham Harrison Bird, a 50-year-old Iraq War veteran who lives in London but has been camped out in a small tent since the protests started on Oct. 15.

Mr. Bird said he was hospitalized for five months after sustaining injuries in Basra, hasn't been allowed back to work since then and lost much of his pension funds as a result of the financial crisis.

Asked how long he plans to stay at St. Paul's, he replied: "As long as it takes."

"Christopher Wren built this, so it belongs to us," he said, referring to the architect of the 400-year-old cathedral.

St. Paul's, where Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer were married in 1981, is one of London's top tourist attractions. Last year, the church earned an average of nearly $36,000 a day from commercial activities, according to the BBC.

It's not clear what the cathedral will do if protesters continue to ignore requests to leave. A spokeswoman for St. Paul's did not respond to messages seeking comment Sunday.

A special Evensong event scheduled for Monday night has been relocated from St. Paul's to a cathedral south of the River Thames.

Beyond the church's financial losses, city officials and others have expressed concerns that local businesses are taking a hit as well.

"Tourists won't come to this area because they're intimidated," said Dan Hartley, a 22-year-old London resident who stopped to observe the demonstrators with a couple of friends. "All these shops are losing money. I don't understand it."

For their part, demonstrators say such worries are unfounded and the opposite is true.

"It's bringing people in, if anything," said Nick Fischer, a 20-year-old fast-food worker who made the trek from Liverpool with a friend to take part in the protest.

As an example, Mr. Fischer pointed to a nearby Starbucks - where many protesters hang out or use the restroom - that was packed.

Mr. Fischer and friend Chris Huxley, also 20, said they weren't afraid of being removed from St. Paul's by force if church leaders ask the authorities for help.

"There's always going to be a risk," Mr. Fischer said. But he added that police in London and elsewhere in the UK learned from this summer's riots not to "instigate."

Police are a regular presence at St. Paul's, though they keep a low profile. On Sunday, several officers strolled through the maze of tents, with some drinking coffee as others took a moment to read from a vast array of posters and manifestos plastered throughout the area.

"They're the 99 percent too," Mr. Fischer said, employing a catchphrase of the movement.