Thousands back sacked bishop

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Evreux - At least 8,000 people protested yesterday against the Vatican's sacking of the liberal French bishop Jacques Gaillot, 59, as he bade farewell in Evreux with an emotional last Mass.

"No to the Vatican diktat", "Pope John Paul, you're out of touch - resign", read banners carried by the crowds packed into the narrow streets outside the Gothic cathedral to urge Mgr Gaillot's reinstatement as bishop of the Norman town.

About 2,000 people crammed into the cathedral while others, some from Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and Luxembourg, braved rain and strong winds to listen over loudspeakers to the last Evreux Mass by the "Red Cleric".

Police estimated the crowds, in which a few people wept, at 8,000 to 10,000 while organisers said 30,000 protested at the Vatican sacking of the Bishop on 13 January. Protests were held elsewhere in France. He had upset the Vatican with liberal views on issues such as birth control and workers' rights.

He defied Vatican doctrine by urging the use of condoms against Aids, speaking in favour of allowing priests to marry, and calling for greater tolerance of homosexuality. "This is the day of greatest joy for me as bishop since I started here in 1982," Mgr Gaillot said from the pulpit to a congregation including four bishops. "That time, the cathedral was not full."

Mobbed like a pop star on his way to the Mass by chanting crowds, he vowed in a sermon to continue his work for the poor. He also called for reconciliation and was repeatedly interrupted by applause.

"The Church should be for people shut out of society, not for shutting people out," he said. "Christ experienced that path in his flesh - the path of abandonment, of unjust condemnation and of exclusion."

The bishop angered successive governments by urging tougher action for the poor, unemployed and homeless.

Some bishops have urged a meeting of all the country's bishops to find a new role for him, fearing a further drift from Catholicism.

Anne-Claire Hautdidier, 11, from Grenoble, promised some long-term hope. She struggled under the weight of a banner proclaiming: "When I'm Pope, I'll reinstate you Jacques."