UK's St Paul's to reopen despite "Wall St" protest

Reuters News
Posted: Oct 26, 2011 4:54 PM
UK's St Paul's to reopen despite "Wall St" protest

By Naomi O'Leary and Yeganeh Torbati

LONDON (Reuters) - London's St Paul's Cathedral is expected to reopen to the public on Friday, a week after church leaders closed its doors for the first time since World War Two, blaming safety risks posed by anti-capitalism protesters camped outside.

The cathedral attracts around 820,000 visitors each year and closure meant losing a significant chunk of revenue. Last year, it earned about 22,000 pounds ($35,000) a day from entrance ticket sales, events and its shop, according to its website.

The Dean of St Paul's, the Right Reverend Graeme Knowles, said he hoped the church would reopen with a service on Friday, subject to a final decision on Thursday.

However, he said he still wanted the protesters to pack up their campsite and that court action was still being considered.

"We reiterate our basic belief in the right to protest as well as requesting that those people living in the tents now leave the site peacefully," he said in a statement.

The cathedral had initially offered the protesters safe haven almost two weeks ago when they asked riot police to step back from clearing the front of the building in the City of London's financial district.

Church leaders said their advisers had warned that the campsite posed a fire risk and was blocking access to the main entrance.

The dispute had become a public relations challenge for St Paul's, with fears growing that any attempt to clear the activists could produce damaging images of police dragging away peaceful protesters from the front of the iconic church.

It had also risked creating divisions within both the cathedral itself and the wider Church of England, with more conservative forces pitted against those who wanted to see it allied with the protesters to demand reform in the financial services sector.

The demonstrators, the London branch of the U.S.-based Occupy Wall Street movement, said the closure had always been unjustified and that they had been working for days to address concerns over hygiene, safety and fire access.

Protester Ronan McNern, 36, one of the activists responsible for liaison with the church, described the news as "tremendous."

"We have always wanted them to reopen," he said. "We've always been keen to resume dialogue. It's really good news."

He said he hoped the cathedral authorities would now be willing to talk to the several hundred protesters about the wider issues of tackling the banking crisis and would attend an inter-faith ceremony due to be held at the camp on Saturday.