Catholics flock to Australia ahead of Pope's visit

Thousands of Catholic pilgrims gathered in the Australian city of Sydney on Friday ahead of an appearance by Pope Benedict XVI at the church's annual World Youth Day event.

Thousands of Catholic pilgrims gathered in the Australian city of Sydney on Friday ahead of an appearance by Pope Benedict XVI at the church's World Youth Day.

The event, which begins Tuesday, is expected to draw the most visitors to Australia since the 2000 Summer Olympics. Officials expect more than 500,000 people — including 100,000 foreigners — to attend.

The Pope will arrive Sunday and rest for a few days before leading a series of prayer gatherings and meetings on Thursday. He will then take a boat trip on Sydney Harbour, followed by a welcome ceremony and papal motorcade through downtown.

Tens of thousands are expected to participate in a walking pilgrimage across Sydney's famed Harbour Bridge, which links the north and south portions of the city and offers a sweeping view of the harbour and opera house.

Canadian Heather Wilkinson spent Friday morning sitting on the docks of Darling Harbour with members of her church youth group.

The 20-year-old attended the last World Youth Day event in Germany in 2005, and said she found it deeply moving. She hoped to recapture some of that emotion with the Pope's arrival in Sydney.

"It's one of the best experiences I've ever had in my life," she said.

Protests planned

The event is aimed at celebrating the Catholic faith, but critics say the ongoing controversy over past scandals is nothing to celebrate.

Canadian and Australian survivors of abuse inflicted by Catholic clergy during the 20th century have said they hope the Pope would offer a similar apology to the one he offered to victims in the U.S. in April.

During his visit to the United States, the Pope said he was "deeply ashamed" of the child sex abuse scandal that has rocked the U.S. branch of the church since 2002.

The Sydney event has also garnered significant opposition from gay rights, student and atheist groups who plan to march on July 19 to protest the church's positions on homosexuality and birth control.

The NoToPope coalition planned to distribute condoms to young pilgrims, but a new law gives authorities the power to order anyone to stop behaviour considered "annoying" toward those attending the festivities. Those who refuse could face fines of up to $5,300.

Toronto hosted World Youth Day in 2002, drawing an estimated 500,000 visitors to the city.

With files from the Associated Press