`Red cleric' stands up for jobless

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Paris - A French bishop, sacked by the Vatican last week for defying Church teaching, yesterday called for state benefits for the young unemployed.

Mgr Jacques Gaillot, who accused the Vatican of being "totalitarian" for sacking him as Bishop of Evreux, occupied a social welfare office in central Paris with about 100 people, including the homeless and the jobless .

"I'm not ready to shut up, I'm not ready to stop. I want to show that I'm still alive," Mgr Gaillot, dressed in lay clothes with a small cross on his chest, said. "This is a question of young people who have nothing: no resources, no home, no work. The Vatican should rejoice in my defending [human] rights."

Dubbed "the Red cleric" for his outspoken views, Mgr Gaillot was protesting to secure welfare for an estimated 500,000 unemployed under 25 in France who fall outside the country's social security net.

Many Catholics on the Continent have been shocked by the abrupt sacking of Mgr Gaillot, apparently for his liberal views on birth control and sexual relations. Bishop of Evreux in northern France since 1982, Mgr Gaillot, 59, has urged the use of condoms to prevent the spread of Aids, spoken in favour of allowing priests to marry and on behalf of greater rights for workers. He also courted controversy by opposing a tightening of immigration laws and spoken for tolerance of homosexuality.

Church spokesmen played down fears that the Vatican's tightening of doctrine under John Paul II was alienating it from mainstream French Catholics. The Vatican opposes artificial contraception, and pre-marital and extra-marital sexual relations.

"Numerous Catholics feel wounded by the decision taken by Rome," admitted Mgr Joseph Duval, Bishop of Rouen and head of the bishop's conference in France. "And this wound will be very hard to heal." He said in an interview with the conservative daily Le Figaro that the Church would work to avoid a schism.

Only four bishops have been sacked in France since 1945, three of them for being pro-Nazi during the Second World War.

About 5,000 people protested in Evreux on Sunday against their bishop's sacking and thousands of others demonstrated elsewhere.

About 70 per cent of French people say they are Catholic. Fewer than 10 per cent, however, regularly attend Mass.

Thousands of Catholics in Belgium also demonstrated for Mgr Gaillot. In Germany, eight theologians expressed outrage, calling the sacking a "gratuitous papal act".

The Pope is currently riding a wave of popularity during his visit to the Far East. In Manila on Sunday, jubilant Vatican officials said an estimated four million people gave the Pope his biggest welcome ever. "The singer has more success than the song,"the leftist daily Liberation commented of the Pope.

The Vatican has said Mgr Gaillot aroused "anxiety and negative reactions". It has also signalled that there seems to be no chance of him being reinstated.