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Italians throng Vatican to support silenced Pope

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of students, politicians and ordinary Romans thronged the Vatican on Sunday in a major show of sympathy for Pope Benedict after protests led him to cancel a speech at Rome's top university this week.

"Thank you all for this show of solidarity," a smiling Pope told the cheering, clapping crowds who filled St. Peter's Square in much bigger numbers than usual. Some waved banners denouncing the "censorship" imposed by members of La Sapienza university.

The Pope called off a speech at the university scheduled for Thursday after a small group staged protests and sit-ins against what they called his antiquated views on science. The university was founded by a pope more than 700 years ago.

The episode provoked accusations of censorship in the Roman Catholic country. Even critics of the Church, like leftist Nobel laureate Dario Fo, defended the Pope's right to free speech.

Recalling his "long years" as a theology professor, Benedict told the crowd: "I encourage all of you dear university students to always respect the opinions of others and to seek, with a liberal and responsible spirit, truth and righteousness."

Since his election in 2005, the conservative Pontiff has fought what he sees as efforts to restrict the voice of the Church in the public sphere, particularly in Europe. But his stand on issues like abortion, gay marriage and euthanasia has led critics in Italy to accuse him of meddling in politics.

The protesters at La Sapienza criticised his views on science, saying a speech in 1990 showed he would have favoured the Church's 17th century heresy trial against Galileo. The Vatican said the protesters misunderstood that speech, made some 17 years ago when the Pope was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

The vicar of Rome, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, had urged Romans to come out on Sunday in support of the Pope, but senior clerics said it should not be seen as a political event.

"We only wish to unite in prayers with the Pope. This is not a political demonstration and must not be used for political ends," said Mons. Mauro Parmeggiani of the Rome diocese.

Fabrizio Cicchitto, a senior member of conservative opposition leader Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party, called the rally a "testimony against the barbarians" who silenced the Pope.

But leftist member of parliament Franco Grillini, a gay rights activist, said "politicians kissing the shoes of the Pontiff" showed "a painful lack of political autonomy".

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