Swiss Catholic Youths Welcome Pope

Thousands of young Roman Catholics from across Switzerland gathered in the country's capital Saturday to welcome Pope John Paul II, while several hundred other youths staged a protest.

John Paul, who arrived Saturday for a 1 day stay in Bern, received a rapturous welcome from 10,000 Swiss Catholic youths Saturday evening in a hockey arena. Most were Swiss, but several groups traveled from neighboring Germany and France.

The pope addressed the crowd, alternating among three of the four official Swiss languages - German, French and Italian.

``I was once 20 years old, just like you,'' he said.

He recalled that when he was young he shared the worries of young people, particularly difficult during World War II and the Cold War. He said he made sense of his life ``in following the Lord Christ.''

Shifting into Italian, the frail pontiff said he had no intention of giving up.

``It's wonderful to be able to offer oneself until the end for the cause of the Kingdom of God,'' he said.

Earlier, the youngsters danced to the music of a Christian rock group from France, watched a theater and dance show and listened to professions of faith from a series of participants.

With the Swiss federal railway company providing special trains, several thousand youths assembled in Bern's picturesque medieval center. Groups from the country's French, Italian and German-speaking regions gathered in different city squares before heading to the arena, where loudspeakers pumped out hiphop and salsa.

Twelve-year-old Isabell, who did not give her last name but said she was from Olten in northern Switzerland, said she was looking forward to the rally. She said she thought the pope was cool but some if his views were too old-fashioned.

Many of the participants wore red, yellow or orange T-shirts printed with the rally's slogan, ``Rise Up'' and arrows marked ``Up'' and ``Down.''

Under the downward arrow, several had written the names of President Bush, nationalist Swiss government minister Christoph Blocher or the word ``racism.''

Singer Ray Charles and Italian soccer club Inter Milan were among the names above the up arrow.

Swiss authorities have boosted security and prohibited demonstrations in Bern during the pope's visit.

But about 300 youths from a group calling itself the ``Antipapist Alliance'' held a protest anyway, saying they were against John Paul's ``fundamentalist'' views on AIDS and homosexuality. Some tussled with police, but no major violence was reported.

Small groups of papal opponents from other Christian denominations and non-Christian groups also handed out flyers to passers-by. They included members of the Raelian movement - which believes life on Earth was created by clones of extraterrestrials.