Image: Pilgrims wait near Cibeles square in Madrid
Rafa Rivas  /  AFP - Getty Images
Pilgrims wait near Cibeles square in Madrid on August 16, 2011 before a giant open-air mass, launching a six-day youth party for Pope Benedict XVI.
updated 8/17/2011 3:59:24 PM ET 2011-08-17T19:59:24

A chemistry student working as a volunteer for the pope's visit to Madrid was arrested on suspicion of planning a gas attack targeting protesters opposed to the pontiff's stay, officials said Wednesday.

Pope Benedict XVI is due to arrive Thursday for a nearly four-day visit to celebrate World Youth Day, and thousands of protesters railing against his visit marched through central Madrid to the central Sol plaza where they have held months of demonstrations against the government's anti-austerity policies.

A police official said the suspect arrested in Madrid Tuesday is a 24-year-old Mexican student specializing in organic chemistry. She would not say whether investigators believe the man was actually capable of carrying out a gas attack, and did not know if he actually had chemicals that could have been used to assault the protesters.

The detainee was identified by the Mexican Embassy in Madrid as Jose Perez Bautista, which said he was from Puebla state, near Mexico City.

He was arrested at a Madrid convention center where the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims coming to town for the papal visit are supposed to pick up their accreditation, the police official said on condition of anonymity in line with the department's rules.

An official with the visit's organizing committee said the Mexican was a volunteer working to help deal with the massive flow of people coming to Madrid. The official would not give her name, citing the church-run committee's policy.

Image: A man holds and wears signs on the first day of the World Youth Day meeting in Madrid
Juan Medina  /  Reuters
A man holds and wears signs on the first day of the World Youth Day meeting in Madrid Tuesday. The signs read: "Pope gives 50,000 euros to Somalia and spends 50,000,000 euros here" (R) and "Did Jesus live on taxes?"

A total of 30,000 people from around the world are taking part in that organizing effort, 10,000 police are providing security in Madrid and organizers say they expect more than 1 million young pilgrims for World Youth Day, which started Tuesday and runs through Sunday.

The protest he allegedly wanted to disrupt happened relatively peacefully, and the main incident of note as of late Wednesday were some shouting exchanges between demonstrators and pilgrims who support the pope.

Police have 72 hours from the time of the arrest to bring the detainee before a judge at the National Court for questioning or to release him. A court official said he would appear before the judge Thursday at the earliest.

The official — speaking on condition of anonymity in line with court policy — said the detainee had been making threats over the Internet against people in Spain opposed to the pope's visit, and police who'd been monitoring his online activity ultimately decided to arrest him as the visit approached.

Police said in a statement released Tuesday night that officers who searched the detainee's apartment in a wealthy district of Madrid seized an external hard-drive and two notebooks with chemical equations that had nothing to do with his studies.

It said he tried to recruit people via the Internet to help him, and that a computer allegedly used for this purpose was among objects seized by police.

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The man had planned to attack anti-Pope protesters with "suffocating gases" and other chemicals, the statement said. But it did not mention police having confiscated chemicals that could be used in an attack.

Mexican Embassy spokesman Bernardo Graue said consular officials had visited Perez Bautista in prison and described him as "relaxed" and in good physical condition as he waits to go before a judge. The Mexican officials did not ask him if he had in fact planned a gas attack, because interrogating him is up to Spanish authorities, Graue said.

Without knowing what chemicals and delivery system the man may have had, it is impossible to know what harm he could have caused on protesters marching in open air through the streets of Madrid, as will happen Wednesday evening, said Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert at the Swedish National Defence College in Stockholm.

'Very dedicated student'
The suspect was in Madrid studying with Spain's top government research body, the Spanish National Research Council, and his office there was searched, the police statement said. The council confirmed the arrest but gave no immediate details on the Mexican.

Mexico's Autonomous University of Puebla confirmed that a man with the same name had completed an undergraduate degree in chemistry in 2009 and had expressed interest in doing graduate work in Spain.

"Both the name and the academic background match," said Rafael Hernandez Oropeza, the university's director of international relations. He said Perez Bautista had an 8.6 grade average out of 10, "which is pretty high."

Gloria Leon Tello, the academic director of the university's school of chemistry, said Perez Bautista was a quiet, well-mannered, hardworking student. She had contact with him as an administrator, but did not have him in class.

"He was a very dedicated student, calm, very well-mannered," said Leon Tello, who said his age roughly matched that of the Madrid suspect. "He had very deep values ... like discipline, responsibility." Leon Tello said she did not hear him express political or religious views.

History of religious extremism
Mexico has some history of conservative religious extremism.

In 1926, tensions over Mexico's harsh anti-clerical laws broke into armed conflict between the government and Catholic rebels in the bloody, three-year Cristero War in which tens of thousands died.

In 1928, a young conservative Catholic activist, Jose de Leon Toral, assassinated President-elect Alvaro Obregon.

In the 1960s and 1970s a number of conservative Catholic youth groups grew up at universities in Mexico, including Puebla, and sometimes scuffled with left-wing student activists of the time.

Church organizers say the papal visit will cost about euro50 million ($72 million). Protesters claim the government is essentially spending taxpayers' money on the visit by granting tax breaks to corporate sponsors and perks such as discount subway and bus tickets for pilgrims.

The visit comes as Spain gets ready for early elections in November. And while the church officially keeps out of politics, it will be sure to be watching closely — as the outcome could affect Spain's direction on hot-button ethical issues.

The election will pit the ruling Socialists, who irked the Vatican with social reforms including gay marriage and a law allowing 16-year-olds to get abortions without parental consent, against conservatives who tend to back church thinking on such issues and are heavily favored to win.

'A time of uncertainty'
Spain's economy is sputtering as it seeks to overcome recession, Madrid's stock market has been a roller-coaster of late, the government is saddled with debt woes, and young Spaniards feel doomed and angry over their grim prospects amid a nearly 21 percent unemployment rate.

This bitter cocktail, or ingredients of it, is being served up in much of Europe and elsewhere.

"This is a time of uncertainty for young people. The pope is coming to Spain for World Youth Day, bringing a positive and challenging message from young people from all over the world," the Rev. Federico Lombardi, chief Vatican spokesman, said last week.

Pilgrims echoed that need for solace and inspiration.

"The message is about hope, about the future, to move from the current situation — whatever it is, and now it is kind of devastating — but move forward toward the future and hope that things will be better," said the Rev. Father Stanley Gomes, a chaplain at Seton Hall University who is accompanying 15 students from the school near New York City.

Organizers say about 450,000 young people from 193 countries — some from as far away as Vietnam and Pakistan — have registered to take part.

Slideshow: Benedict: The first years of his papacy (on this page)

But signing up beforehand is not mandatory and from past experience the total will be about three times those who register.

Two-thirds are expected to be Spaniards; among the rest Italy, France, the United States, Germany and Poland are sending the largest delegations.

The main events are a prayer vigil with the 84-year-old Pope and outdoor sleepover for pilgrims Saturday night at a sprawling air base, and Mass there the next morning.

Except for a trip Friday to a historic monastery in El Escorial, 30 miles northwest of Madrid, the Pope will spend the whole visit in Madrid, meeting with young people, hearing confession from some of them, riding through the city in his pope-mobile and greeting young nuns, seminarians and university professors, among other activities.

Minority attend church regularly
In Spain the church faces a congregation for whom being Catholic is more a birthmark than a way of life.

A poll released in July says that while 72 percent of Spaniards identify themselves as Catholic, 60 percent say they "almost never" go to Mass and only 13 percent every Sunday.

Church organizers insist the papal visit involves zero cost for Spanish taxpayers because the money is coming from corporate sponsors, private donations and fees paid by some of the pilgrims, among other sources.

Critics are complaining of the cost of providing extra police security, tax breaks being granted to the corporate sponsors, discount subway and bus tickets for the visitors, and the price tag of opening up school gyms and sports facilities in a vacation month to set up makeshift digs for so many pilgrims.

Even some progressive Catholics are joining a protest march Wednesday night to denounce taxpayer money spent for World Youth Day, a globe-trotting meeting held every three years. The last was in Sydney, Australia, and the next will be in Rio de Janeiro.

"At a time of crisis, and with so many people in need, we feel this visit should not be so massive and attention-drawing, so spectacular, but rather something more simple and closer to the grassroots of the church," said Raquel Mallavibarrena, a spokeswoman for a progressive Catholic group called Redes Cristianas, or Christian Networks.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Photos: Benedict: The first years

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  1. Cardinal Ratzinger attends Pope John Paul II's funeral in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on April 8, 2005. The cardinal was elected to succeed John Paul as Pope Benedict XVI. He is the 265th pope, leader of the Roman Catholic Church, which claims a billion members. (Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. The newly elected Pope Benedict XVI appears on the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica on April 19, 2005, in Vatican City. (Chris Jackson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Pope Benedict XVI waves from his popemobile as he arrives to celebrate Mass near Kerpen, Germany, on Aug. 21, 2005. More than a million young pilgrims attended the Mass at a Catholic festival. (Pier Paolo Cito / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Pope Benedict XVI waves to pilgrims as he floats down the Rhine River on Aug. 18, 2005, in Cologne, Germany. The pope returned to his native Germany for the first trip of his papacy. (Dimitar Dilkoff / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Pilgrims wave at the pope during the river float. More than 400,000 young Catholics from nearly 200 countries welcomed the new pope to Cologne, Germany, for the World Youth Day festival. (Sebastian Willnow / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Pope Benedict XVI prays in front of the Christmas crib in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on Dec. 31, 2005. (Patrick Hertzog / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Pope Benedict XVI, wearing a Camauro, which is a red velvet hat with white ermine trim used by popes in the 12th century, waves to pilgrims as he arrives on St. Peter's Square to preside over his weekly general audience on Dec. 28, 2005. (Patrick Hertzog / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Pope Benedict XVI talks with unidentified members of a Muslim delegation during his weekly open-air general audience in St. Peter's Square on March 1, 2006. (Osservatore Romano Arturo Mari / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Pilgrims gather in St. Peter's Square on April 2, 2006, as the pope leads a special prayer vigil to mark the one-year anniversary of Pope John Paul II's death. (Patrick Hertzog / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Pope Benedict XVI prays at the tomb of late Pope John Paul II in the grotto beneath St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican on April 6, 2006. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Pope Benedict XVI lays prostrate as he prays during Good Friday mass in St. Peter's Basilica on April 14, 2006. (Andreas Solaro / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Pope Benedict XVI arrives to lead the Easter mass in St. Peter's Square on April 16, 2006. (Alessandro Bianchi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Pope Benedict XVI greets believers as he arrives for evening prayers at the basilica of Altoetting on Sept. 11, 2006. Benedict is making his fourth foreign trip since becoming pope in April 2005 and the second to Germany in that time. (Thomas Lohnes / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Pope Benedict XVI and Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I arrive at the St. George Church in Istanbul on November 29, 2006. Pope Benedict met with Bartholomew in pursuit of a key goal of his papacy: healing a rift between the two feuding branches of Christianity that dates back nearly 1,000 years. (Patrick Hertzog / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Pope Benedict XVI leaves the Sistine Chapel after a baptism ceremony at the Vatican on January 7, 2007. (Alberto Pizzoli / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Pope Benedict XVI greets pilgrims and faithful during an open-air Palm Sunday Mass celebrated in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican April 1, 2007. Palm Sunday commemorates Jesus Christ's triumphant entry into Jerusalem and is the start of the church's Holy Week. (Alessandra Tarantino / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Pope Benedict XVI waves from the popemobile as he arrives for the opening mass of the Latin American Episcopal Council in Aparecida, Brazil, on May 13, 2007. (Victor Caivano / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. President Bush meets with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican on June 9, 2007. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah presents gifts to Pope Benedict XVI during their meeting at the Vatican on Nov. 6, 2007. The pope has been pressing the Saudi Arabian monarch to allow freedom of worship for Christians. (Chris Helgren / Pool via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Benedict meets French President Nicolas Sarkozy at his private library Dec. 20, 2007, in Vatican City. Sarkozy was visiting the pope for the first time since taking office amid speculation over his relationship with ex-model Carla Bruni, whom he later married. (Franco Origlia / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Benedict greets the faithful during the Angelus prayer in St. Peter's square at the Vatican on Jan. 20, 2008. Tens of thousands of people attended the pope's traditional noontime blessing, showing their support after the Vatican canceled his visit to a university because of protests by students and faculty. (L'Osservatore Romano via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Pope Benedict XVI arrives at the Amadou Ahidjo stadium to celebrate a Mass in Yaounde , Cameroon, on March 19, 2009. The pontiff was in Africa for a seven-day trip that took him to Cameroon and Angola. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Pope Benedict XVI walks in front of the Dome of the Rock in the compound known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) and to Jews as Temple Mount, in Jerusalem's Old City on May 12, 2009. (Osservatore Romano / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. A man in Rome uses an Apple iPod Touch to view a new official Vatican Internet portal with an image of Pope Benedict XVI on May 22, 2009. The Vatican website, www.pope2you.net, went live ahead of the Roman Catholic Church's World Communications Day the next day. (Alessandro Bianchi / REUTERS) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Pope Benedict XVI walks with US President Barack Obama first lady michelle during an audience on July 10, 2009 at The Vatican. Obama was meeting the pope for the first time. (Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. This sequence of images taken from amateur video shows an unidentified woman jumping over a barrier and grabbing the pope as a guard pulls her down, while the pope walks down the main aisle to begin Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City on Dec. 24, 2009. The pope was unhurt, and the service continued. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. The faithful crowd into Hyde Park during a prayer vigil led by the pope in London on Sept. 18, 2010. (Gregorio Borgia / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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