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Pope tells Swiss youth he won't step down

BERN, Switzerland -- A frail Pope John Paul II made his first foreign trip in nine months yesterday by visiting Switzerland, calling it his "duty" to keep traveling. He told young people he had no intention of giving up the papacy.

The pontiff spoke to a rally of 13,000 Swiss Roman Catholic youths, his hands trembling but his voice clear. He had difficulty speaking at times, but the crowd encouraged him by cheering.

"It's wonderful to be able to offer oneself until the end for the cause of the Kingdom of God," he told the rally, describing that as his testimony after nearly 60 years as a priest.

The 84-year-old John Paul has Parkinson's disease and crippling hip and knee ailments, but he has repeatedly brushed aside suggestions that he step down.

In Switzerland, where many in his own flock question some of his conservative teaching, leading Catholic theologians recently declared that popes -- like bishops -- should resign at 75.

During his last foreign trip, to Slovakia in September, the pope at times lost his breath, slumped in his chair, and was unable to complete most of his speeches, raising questions about whether the most-traveled pope in history would travel again.

On Friday, while receiving President Bush at the Vatican, John Paul's hands trembled badly and it was hard to understand his speech.

The pope appeared alert and spoke more clearly after arriving in Bern for a 32-hour visit. For the first time on a foreign trip, aides rolled his wheeled throne onto a van, instead of having to carry him bodily onto a vehicle.

John Paul was wildly cheered by the youths when he arrived at the rally, waving to the crowd from his throne on a stage.

He recalled that he once shared the worries of young people while growing up during World War II and the communist era. He said he made sense of his life "in following the Lord Christ."

John Paul told the youths "it is not a time to be ashamed of the Gospel" and reiterated that "Christian marriage" is between a man and a woman -- an allusion to his opposition to homosexual marriage.

Speaking in three of the four official Swiss languages -- German, French, and Italian -- the pope said he was making this trip to address anew "men and women of the third millennium, in particular new generations."

The pope's third visit to Switzerland, one of the historic centers of Protestantism, has met with some grumbling, indicating that after five centuries, tensions remain between Swiss Protestants and Roman Catholics.

As thousands of young people in red, yellow, and orange T-shirts headed to a hockey arena for the rally, police blocked an unauthorized protest by about 300 people in the "Anti-Papist Alliance."

About 1,000 antiterrorist police were mobilized to provide security.

"In a land of democracy and cultural diversity, it is natural that some of Your Holiness' doctrines and precepts elicit intensive debate," the Swiss president, Joseph Deiss, acknowledged in welcoming John Paul.

The Swiss government presented John Paul with a gift by upgrading its Vatican mission to full ambassadorial level.

John Paul is scheduled to preside at an open-air Mass on Sunday for 60,000 people in a meadow outside the city before returning to Rome in the evening.

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