No-Vatican Day in London: for a secular Europe

I'm on the road again, and I'm spending ten days in London before taking off to Abu Dhabi. A part from sorting out some administrative stuff, I'm definitely enjoying the city like the perfect tourist. Ok, maybe not exactly as a proper tourist, as I'm sorting out the boring working and administration papers, but I still have time for sightseeing I couldn't manage to see and write about when I was a "Londoner".

Life in London is hectic, fast-paced and stressing, and it hardly allows to enjoy the city as much as it deserves.
On the 11th I was invited to the launch party of Grantourismo project, involving travel writers Lara Dunston and Terence Carter, a project that is causing a burst of jealousy within the travel blogging scene. Lara and Terry are undertaking a gran tour that will bring them all over the world, with a much slower pace they are used to, and with the possibility to engage in a more authentic way of travelling.

As soon as I arrived at London Victoria, every shop seemed to be aimed at reminding me that we were approaching the Valentine's romance: red all over the place, fluffy teddy bears, sweet cards and shiny little hearts are the main decorations of stores displays this time of the year. And since commerce is London's soul, there is no way you can avoid the atmosphere.

However, to some extent, I did manage to avoid much of the romantic mood, and for Valentine's Day I've joined the protesters marching against the Vatican.

The UK has a flourishing atheist tradition, with one of its most illustrious representatives being Oxford's University Professor Richard Dawkins, who authored the best seller “The God Delusion”.

At this rally, unlike my expectations, he didn't show up. Among the speakers there were Bob Churchill, from the British Humanist Association, Derek Lennard, for the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association, Peter Tatchell, from OutRage! movement.

Why were they demonstrating?

This year, Pope Benedict XVI is coming to the UK, his first visit since 1982, and the demo was aimed at letting him know he's not welcome. As the organisers pointed out, there is no other religious head who is entitled to an official State visit, so why is the Pope?

Why are the British Humanist Association, the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association, the One Law for All movement, the Make the Pope Pay Coalition, the European Humanist Federation, the National Secular Society, the OutRage! movement and the Central London Humanist Group not keen on welcoming the Pope in the UK?

Among slogans (the funniest one being “Dear Pope, keep your bigotry in the Vatican”), posters, speeches and leaflets, I managed to find some of the answers I was looking for:

- The Vatican City only looks like a tiny State mainly inhabited by priests, but in reality it's very powerful and extremely rich. It retains undue influence and power within institutions in many countries and it carries out “moral crusades” that adversely affect the lives of millions of people across Europe and the whole world in matters such as abortion, birth control and homosexuality, limiting people's civil rights and liberties.

- The Catholic Church is a very profitable business, owning hotels, restaurants, shops, private schools and without paying any tax. Moreover, the Vatican receives public money in many countries: in Italy every year the 8‰ of citizens' taxes is destined to the Vatican (it's very little advertised, but, at least in Italy, people can choose to devote this amount to other associations, such as the one involved in protecting consumers' rights).

- The Vatican has diplomatic relations with almost every country in the world, in many they benefit from the support of Catholic politicians or parties, fourteen of the twenty-seven countries of the European Union are bound to the Vatican by treaties and, last but no least, the Vatican is officially an “observer State” of the United Nations, meaning that it can engage in UN debates, influencing its decisions.

- The Vatican's backward, discriminating and unfair positions towards women and gay people undermine what should be considered the basic human rights.

In Italy, the influence of the Catholic Church is in striking contrast with the natural evolution of social issues, technologies and conquests in the human rights' field. Women's right to abortion, for example, is constantly questioned due to the interference of the Catholic clergy within the Italian Parliament; also, the Vatican's dogmas against birth control measures have negative effects in the fight against HIV, especially in developing countries where the disease has reached tragic figures.

The organisers are also demanding that the government ends the many privileges that the Catholic Church has managed to acquire. I haven't thoroughly researched what the situation is in Britain on this particular matter, but in Italy such privileges are seriously undermining a civil and democratic living.

As the Italian education system is going through a majour crisis, among thousands of precarious workers waiting to be hired, religion teachers (whose subject is not compulsory) got a pay rise. Moreover, while all precarious are fired in June (at the end of the academic year, in order to save on their salaries), and hired again in September (the beginning of the academic year), religion teachers are fired in August (during summer holidays) and hired again in September, without missing any monthly salary. On that note, while all teachers of public schools depend on the Italian government, religion teachers depend on the local bishop, who decides who the State will have to hire (and pay!).

Needless to say, these undue privileges and discriminations are causing a general unrest and people's disaffection towards the Catholic Church.

After the march, cold and hungry, we headed to a French patisserie serving organic food and drinks in Weighhouse Street.

As it usually happens in London, our group was quite diverse, which is one of the things I was missing in Italy. After a warm drink that helped us face the cold I'm not accustomed to anymore, we were ready for dinner: Thai Vegeterian in Old Compton Street, Soho, a real treat.


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