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Femen stage topless protest as Pope visits Strasbourg

Frederick Florin, AFP | A topless activist waves an EU flag inside the Cathedral of Strasbourg to protest the Pope's visit to the EU Parliament.

Pope Francis visited the Alsatian city of Strasbourg on Tuesday to give his first highly-anticipated speech to the EU Parliament, in a trip that was preceded by a bare-breasted Femen protest in the city’s renowned gothic Cathedral.

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During his four-hour visit to the Strasbourg-based European Parliament and Council of Europe, the pontiff is expected to address the issues of unemployment, immigration and disillusionment among younger generations.

But despite its brevity, it has sparked criticism in some quarters, with some critics slamming European Parliament head Martin Schulz for inviting a religious leader to address a secular body.

Before the pontiff’s highly-profile speech, a Femen rights group demonstrator mounted the altar in Strasbourg's famed cathedral on Monday while flashing her naked torso and waving the EU flag. The words “Anti-secular Europe,” were scrawled across her breasts, and “The Pope is Not a Politician” on her back.

According to local laws, the Femen activist could face blasphemy charges, a crime that can be punishable with up to three years in prison, commentators said. It has been pointed out that the French region of Alsace has a special exception to the French law about the separation between church and state.

The Femen rights group staged an anti-Vatican protest inside Paris’s famed Notre Dame Cathedral in February 2013, and were accused of damaging centuries-old bells during their signature bare-breasted stunt.

Hot button issues

The EU’s Schultz defended the invitation in an editorial for the Vatican Osservatore Romano newspaper this weekend, saying the visit could "shake Europe out of its torpor" and was by no means "an attack on secularism."

The pope's right-hand man, Vatican Prime Minister Pietro Parolin, said Francis's message would have a strong social dimension, calling on Catholics to make their "own contribution" to the European project, while showing "solidarity with the marginalised."

Pope Francis will likely call for more to be done to tackle youth unemployment – which stands at an average 21.6 percent in the continent.

Many, particularly in the Church's conservative arm, will be watching closely to see whether Francis will address hot-button issues such as gay marriage, abortion and euthanasia, particularly after a slew of recent legislative changes in European countries.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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