Sydney overturns Pope protest law

Sydney, Australia - A court in Sydney has struck down a controversial state law that made it illegal to "annoy" pilgrims gathered for a Roman Catholic youth festival.

The judges ruled that the law, which allowed the police to fine people protesting over the Vatican's stance on various issues, limited free speech.

The ruling came as the World Youth Day festival opens. It will be attended by Pope Benedict XVI later this week.

The challenge to the law was brought by a coalition of protest groups.

Activists say they plan to hold a rally on Saturday at which they will demonstrate against the Church's stand on homosexuality and birth control, by handing out condoms and wearing provocative T-shirts.

Civil liberty groups had denounced the New South Wales state law - which threatened fines of up to A$5,500 (£2,680) against anyone causing "annoyance" to pilgrims - as unnecessary and repugnant.

Wake consciences

The World Youth Day event, which the Pope is heading, is expected to draw some 200,000 young Catholics to Sydney.

The event - which actually runs for six days - begins on Tuesday, although the Pope will not be taking part until later in the week.

During his trip, the Pope will also meet Aboriginal groups, and is likely to repeat an apology made by Pope John Paul II to Australia's indigenous people for injustices carried out by Catholic missionaries.

He also told reporters he wanted to wake up consciences, to make politicians and experts respond to environmental issues.

The Pope will close his trip by presiding over an open-air Mass on 20 July at Sydney's Randwick Racecourse, which is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of pilgrims.