New Battle at Rome Colosseum ; A Gay-Rights Parade July 8 Divides a City That Prides Itself on Respect for Civil Rights and Religion

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On a street near St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome, a Nazi swastika and the words "No Gay Zone" have been painted on the asphalt. Among the graffiti, another under a nearby window reads, "gay = pedophile."

The rhetoric of far-right groups has added to tensions in the Italian capital, as thousands of gay-rights supporters converge on the city for World Pride 2000, a weeklong international festival celebrating gay life that has angered the Roman Catholic Church and caused a political furor. The controversy pits the Vatican's desire for an "untainted" celebration of Catholic values against Rome's backing of free expression by all citizens. It has also sparked an open discussion of homosexual issues, long a taboo subject in Italy.

"We're looking to achieve equality and respect," Deborah Oakley- Melvin, a festival organizer, told Reuters as the festival began on July 1.

The opening event in the gardens of the Philharmonic Academy was met with a pair of protests. The far-right Forza Nuova (New Force) sponsored a march through central Rome that the group said was "in defense of traditional family values." About 700 members gave the Nazi salute and waved banners saying "stop gay pride."

Religious groups and the far-right National Alliance party held an evening torchlight parade, which they said was to "repair the shame" gays are bringing to the center of Roman Catholicism.

Planned since December 1996, World Pride 2000 coincides with the Holy Year of spiritual renewal proclaimed by Pope John Paul II to mark the anniversary of Jesus' birth. The Vatican -which considers homosexual acts a sin - has said gay-rights supporters have the constitutional right to demonstrate, but the festival should not be taking place during the church's year-long celebration.

Cardinal Ersilio Tonini told state television on Saturday, "You cannot prevent us from considering you our brothers and sons - you will always find an open door here." He added, "a dialogue is something else, though. By choosing the Holy Year, the Jubilee ... one chooses provocation."

The festival, which runs through July 9, coincides with several Holy Year events, including a special gathering for the pope's Polish compatriots on July 2, expected to draw 200,000 people.

But it's the climax of the World Pride festivities - a march organizers want to hold around the Colosseum on July 8 -that has proved a political hot potato.

The Rome city council first backed the march, then, expressing deep concern about offending the Vatican, withdrew its official patronage.

In January, Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, referring to the World Pride demonstration, said, "This is only a squalid provocation against the Holy See and Catholic morality."

The desire to avoid confrontation between an aging and widely respected pope and thousands of potential protesters led national and local politicians in Rome to work publicly and behind the scenes to see if there was a way to avoid the demonstration. …