July 7, 2006

Families unite to welcome Pope to Spain

By Jane Barrett

VALENCIA, Spain (Reuters) - Thousands of pilgrims from
around the world crowded into Valencia to welcome Pope Benedict
to a family fiesta on Saturday but the mood was torn between
celebration and sadness after this week's train crash.

As soon as the Pope arrives in the seaside city he will
visit the site of the underground accident which killed 41
people, before moving on to a program of walkabouts among the
faithful and meetings with Spanish leaders.

All eyes are on an audience the 79-year-old pontiff will
have with Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero who was
heavily criticized by the Catholic Church for legalizing gay
marriages, unions the Vatican has called an "eclipse of God."

"Family values are disintegrating worldwide, especially in
Europe," said Chijioke Ugwuoke, a Nigerian visiting Valencia
with his wife Patriera.

"In Africa, we value the family a lot, we live a communal,
close-knit family life and we enjoy it and want the whole world
to enjoy it," he added, under the beating Mediterranean sun.

Dozens of Valencians opened their homes to pilgrims from
afar who came to celebrate the World Meeting of Families.

Others camped out in a park that snakes down a dry riverbed
through Valencia and tens of thousands joined together on the
beach for a prayer vigil on Friday night ahead of the pope's
arrival at 0930 GMT on Saturday.

"It's hard labor but there's a marvelous atmosphere with
all the nations working together," said Leo Candela, a
volunteer laying out chairs in front of a futuristic arts and
science center designed by famed Valencian architect Santiago

Organizers expect about a million people to turn up to a
family celebration on Saturday evening and a Sunday mass led by
the Pope.

Zapatero will break a tradition in most Catholic countries
that the national leader should attend the papal mass.
Government officials did not give a reason for his absence.

The Valencia visit is Pope Benedict's third trip abroad
since his election last April and his first to Spain, once a
Catholic stronghold and now under a Socialist government that
is breaking the Church's influence.

As well as legalizing gay marriage, Zapatero's government
has infuriated the Church with laws to speed up divorce
procedures, replace religious education with citizenship
classes and make fertility treatment easier.

(Additional reporting by Anna Valderrama)