- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 16, 2008

ROME — Pope Benedict XVI yesterday abruptly canceled a visit to Rome”s leading university in the face of security fears because of vociferous opposition to the trip from physics professors and undergraduates who accuse the pontiff of opposing free scientific inquiry.

The conservative German pope had been scheduled to visit University of Rome La Sapienza tomorrow to inaugurate the academic year in ceremonies marking its foundation 705 years ago.

Science students opposed to the visit announced an “anti-clerical week” at the prestigious institution, the scene of clashes between militants from the left and right and the police in the 1960s and ‘70s.

The students, calling themselves the Physics Collective, charge on a Web site that Benedict “condemns centuries of scientific and cultural growth by affirming anachronistic dogmas such as Creationism, while attacking scientific free thought and promoting mandatory heterosexuality.”

The Vatican last night said that “following well-known developments over recent days,” the Holy See “decided it was better to do without” the papal visit. Benedict will send his planned speech to university authorities to be read on his behalf but will not deliver it personally, the statement said.

The decision set off a controversy in Italy. Prime Minister Romano Prodi condemned what he called “the gestures, declarations and attitudes that provoked an unacceptable tension and a climate that does not honor the traditions of civilization and tolerance in Italy.”

Italian Interior Minister Giuliano Amato denied reports that the visit was canceled for security reasons, but police sources said concerns about trouble were raised.

The Vatican had denounced the planned protests, which were set to climax with a “sonic siege” in which music would blare from loudspeakers that protesters planned to mount on a truck in the main square of the campus during the pope’s principal speech, university sources said.

Vatican Radio rejected what it termed “censoring initiatives” by a group of 67 lecturers at the university, including prominent members of La Sapienza’s physics faculty, who wrote an open letter demanding that the university rector revoke the invitation.

The lecturers accuse Benedict of defending the Catholic Church’s persecution of Italian Renaissance scientist Galileo Galilei, noting that in a 1990 speech as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he quoted an Austrian-born philosopher, Paul Feyerabend, who termed Galileo’s 1633 heresy trial as “reasonable and fair.”

Pope John Paul II, Benedict’s predecessor, expressed regret for Galileo’s harsh treatment by the church.

Protest organizers had said they would start by “debaptizing” the university chapel before the pope’s visit there at noon when the sonic siege was to begin. Homosexual and transvestite students also planned a “procession for denied rights” on the campus.

La Sapienza rector Renato Guarini had urged tolerance, evidently to little avail.

“Despite differences in opinion, Benedict XVI should be welcomed as a man of great culture and of profound philosophical thought, a messenger of peace and those ethical values that we all share,” he said.

One of the 67 academics who signed the open letter, Andrea Frova, denied that the protests were intolerant.

“We certainly don’t want to gag the pope,” he told La Repubblica newspaper. “We just believe that his presence at the inauguration of La Sapienza’s academic year is incongruous.”

“We are only expressing an opinion. As scientists, this affair has irritated us. Inviting the pope to the inauguration of the academic year is like inviting a Martian. He has nothing to do with anything here.”

Mr. Guarini told Vatican Radio that “only a small minority of La Sapienza’s 4,500 lecturers” are against the pope. Mr. Frova, however, said that pledges of support by colleagues were flowing continually and that the number of academics opposed to the visit has reached “10 times” the original 67 signatories, whose letter was published by La Repubblica.

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