Image: Poster protesting pope's visit
Alessandra Tarantino  /  AP
A student walks past a banner reading "The pope is against the university" at La Sapienza University in Rome on Monday.
updated 1/15/2008 4:28:43 PM ET 2008-01-15T21:28:43

Pope Benedict XVI has canceled a planned visit to a Rome university following protests by professors and students, the Vatican said Tuesday.

Benedict had been scheduled to speak Thursday at La Sapienza, a public university founded by Pope Boniface VIII in 1303, as part of ceremonies inaugurating the new academic year.

But more than 60 professors signed a letter to the university rector opposing the pope's visit. Banners decrying the pope were strung from buildings and posters plastered on walls.

Protests against the pontiff, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, are not uncommon, but "it was considered opportune to skip the event," the Vatican said in a brief statement Tuesday.

Instead, Benedict will send his speech to the university, the Vatican said. Rome's mayor and the government's minister for universities still are scheduled to speak at La Sapienza.

Rare cancellation
Such a cancellation of a scheduled papal event is extremely rare, and the few times it has happened in recent decades, the Vatican has cited security concerns. No specific reason was cited Tuesday.

Vatican Radio described the mobilization by students and professors at Europe's largest university as smacking of censorship.

The university rector, Renato Guarini, criticized the protests as "a fundamentalist attitude of great intellectual closure."

He said 63 instructors — out of a total of 4,500 — had signed the letter. He had said students would have been allowed to gather in a designated area Thursday during the pope's visit.

Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni, who was also one of the scheduled speakers, said the cancellation "represents a defeat of liberal culture and that fundamental principle which is the confrontation of ideas and respect for institutions."

Italian Premier Romano Prodi urged the pontiff to change his mind. "No voice must go silent in our country, let alone that of the pope," Prodi said in a statement.

The theme for the school ceremony is efforts to abolish the death penalty worldwide, a theme close to the Vatican's interests, although the topic of the pope's speech was not revealed.

Students react with applause
When news of the cancellation reached the campus, students in a political sciences hall broke into applause.

Guarini said he respected the pope's decision although the academic leader expressed "regret."

"The encounter with the pope could have represented an important moment of reflection for believers and nonbelievers on ethical and civil problems," such as the campaign to abolish the death penalty, the rector said.

Before the cancellation, the rector had said students would have had a designated area where they could protest during the papal visit.

The university has 145,000 students.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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