Pope Benedict XVI has arrived in Germany for his first official state visit. Tens of thousands of Germans, including politicians, have vowed to protest the visit and his speech to the Bundestag.
The pope's German visit has stirred controversy in Berlin
The motto of the pope's tour of Germany is: "Where there's God, there's future." That line is meant to help bring back Germans to the Catholic Church, which has seen dwindling support in recent years.
Joseph Ratzinger's third trip to his native Germany since becoming Pope Benedict XVI comes amid a sharp decline in church membership after a series of abuse scandals in Germany and abroad. His planned address before parliament, meanwhile, has caused furor in Berlin for months.
String of protests
On Thursday, the the 84-year-old pontiff landed in Berlin for his first state visit. On the four-day trip, he will meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Christian Wulff and address the Bundestag, Germany's parliament.
Benedict XVI is set to land in Berlin on Thursday
Officially, the pope will speak before parliament in his political capacity as head of the Holy See - yet 100 parliamentarians from left-of-center opposition parties have vowed to boycott the address, saying they don't believe a religious leader has a place in the Bundestag.
"If we start honoring church heads and leaders of religious groups in the German Bundestag, where will it end?" Green MP Hans-Christian Ströbele said in an interview with Bavarian public radio.
The protests against the pope's visit will certainly not see an end at the Bundestag. Demonstration organizers expect some 20,000 people will gather in Berlin to protest sexual abuse committed by Catholic clergymen.
Openly gay Green MP Volker Beck has said he will be among them.
"When it comes to human rights and sexual politics, he's not in line with what our German Basic Law demands. Here, dissent is fully legitimate. Everyone has to decide for himself how to express it," he said.
Robert Zollitsch, the head of German Bishops' Conference, said he does not object to protests against the Bundestag speech, but thinks protesters should first listen to what the pontiff has to say. He emphasizes that the pope was invited to speak by the Bundestag's chairman.
Meanwhile, Nikolaus Schneider, the head of Germany's Protestant Church, has labeled protests against the pope's Bundestag appearance as "small-minded."
The pope's visit will draw 80,000 visitors to Berlin's Olympic Stadium
In order to preempt the sort of criticism the church faced last month in Spain concerning the costs of the pope's visit in Madrid, the German Bishops' Conference has published the figures ahead of time.
The Catholic Church will cover at least 25-30 million euros ($34-41 million) itself for the visit alone, including security. Zollitsch has stressed that the costs of the visit will not divert funds from the church's charity work.
"In order to continue helping people during the papal visit, we've established a special Benedict-East Africa fund," he said. The church estimates the fund will bring in millions in aid.
Supporters in droves
While protests are expected to be well attended, the number of supporters planning to attend the pope's speeches far outweighs the expected number of protesters. Around 250,000 people have registered to attend his open-air masses in Berlin, Erfurt and Freiburg. Of them, 80,000 are set to attend his appearance at the Olympic Stadium in the generally Protestant or atheist Berlin, according to the German Bishops' Conference.
The pope's visit will also take him into the historical heartland of the Protestant movement, to a monastery in Erfurt where church reformer Martin Luther was once a monk. There, the pontiff will meet with Protestant leaders for an ecumenical gathering.
"We are not expecting any great sensation," Benedict told German public television ahead of the visit. "What is truly great is that we will come together in this place to think, to hear God's word and pray, and be side by side - that a true ecumenical Christianity will be manifest."
Most of the German public is not awaiting any spectacular event either. Fifty-three percent of the population does not believe the pope's visit will bring about any defining change, according to a recent poll by the Emnid Institute.
'Not a show'
The pope will honor Helmut Kohl for his role in German reunification
As during visits to the United States and Great Britain, the pope is expected to meet with victims of abuse committed by clergymen, although the time and place of the meeting has not been made public. He is also expected to address the issue in his speeches.
The nearly 25 million Catholics in Benedict's home country won't be the only ones watching; 20 television channels from around the globe plan to broadcast segments of his visit live.
"All this is not religious tourism, and it's even less a show," the pope told German television. "What it's about is the watchword: 'Where there's God, there's future.'"
The trip isn't purely religious, either. During his visit to the eastern German state of Thuringia, Benedict is expected to speak about Germany's reunification. And in Freiburg, the pope plans to bestow an honor and a private audience on former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl for his role in bringing the country back together.
Author: Bernd Riegert / dl
Editor: Martin Kuebler