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World Youth Day Underway in Spain

Pope Benedict XVI greets the faithful during the weekly general audience at his summer residence of Castel Gandolfo, in the outskirts of Rome. Benedict XVI lands Thursday in the Spanish capital of Madrid for a four-day visit to greet up to a million or mo

The weeklong faith extravaganza of World Youth Day is under way in Madrid with more than one million young Catholics expected to pour into the city. Pope Benedict is now due to arrive on Thursday as bitter debates are raging over the festivities and the role of the church in Spanish politics.

Millions anticipate Pope's visit

More than a million young Catholics are expected to crowd into Madrid this week for Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to celebrate World Youth Day. It will be the third time the pope travels to Spain, the country he has visited most since his election in 2005.

Addressing pilgrims from his summer residence in the hills south of Rome Sunday, the pope urged them to pray for the successul outcome of his visit. Just two days before his arrival, Spanish police arrested a 24-year-old Mexican man who was apparently planning to attack people protesting the visit. Security in the city has been significantly stepped up.

Most of the city’s residents have fled the stifling heat in Madrid but hundreds of thousands of pilgrims participated in the opening Mass for World Youth Day on Tuesday, celebrated by Madrid Cardinal Antonio Rouco Varela in the Plaza de Cibeles.

Organizers say the celebration of World Youth Day is drawing faithful from 193 nations. But there will also be those who are not celebrating.

Protesters oppose event costs

Left-leaning groups demanding a secular state and young people who occupied many of Spain’s main squares in May to protest the government’s handling of the economy are planning at a major protest march Wednesday, on the eve of the pope’s arrival.

Criticism of the papal visit has come mainly from the “Los Indignados” (Indignant Ones) protest movement. The group has protested against the government’s spending cuts, economic woes, and 21 percent unemployment.

Many people are unhappy with the cost of extra security for the pope’s visit. They feel this was unnecessary spending at a time that the country is undergoing a deep economic crisis.

Pope's welcome

Upon arrival on Thursday, Spain’s royal family will greet Pope Benedict at Madrid’s Barajas airport. The first official meeting between the pope and youth will be a welcome party. The pope will cross the Puerta de Alcala with five young people, each from a different continent.

In Madrid, the Pope will also meet with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, whose government has promoted several policies opposed by the church, including relaxing Spain's divorce laws, easing restrictions on abortion, legalizing same-sex marriage and allowing gay couples to adopt.

A vast white altar has been constructed at an air-base in the southwestern suburb of Cuatro Vientos where the pope will culminate his visit on Sunday with a celebration of mass beneath a giant parasol tree made of interwoven golden rods.