Occupy protest closes landmark London cathedral

Story highlights

  • St. Paul's Cathedral will remain closed until further notice
  • A tent city has surrounded the church, a London landmark, for a week
  • Cathedral officials say the camp presents a health and fire risk
  • The protesters say they have tried hard to meet safety concerns
Visitors to London's landmark St. Paul's Cathedral Saturday will find its doors closed to the public for the first time in decades, after officials decided a tent city erected outside by protesters was a safety risk.
The tents were put up last weekend around the cathedral, with its famous dome, by protesters from Occupy London Stock Exchange.
The group is one of many around the world inspired by the actions of the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States, which took to the streets of New York more than a month ago.
The Dean of St. Paul's, the Right Rev. Graeme Knowles, announced Friday afternoon that the cathedral would be closed until further notice because of "practical and safety issues," including a fire risk from stoves used by those camping out.
He had taken the decision to close the cathedral -- a move "unprecedented in modern times" -- with a "heavy heart", he said, but had been left with little choice after appeals to the protesters to move on went unheeded.
"It should be obvious to anyone approaching the Cathedral that the size of the camp and the consequent compliance issues which it inevitably raises, has increasingly put us in a difficult position," he said in a statement.
Representatives of St. Paul's initially welcomed the peaceful protesters to the church grounds last weekend, after police blocked them from entering neighboring Paternoster Square.
But as the size of the protest camp in the heart of the capital's financial district, known as the City of London, has grown, so have the tensions between the camp and St. Paul's -- and on Friday Knowles sent an open letter to the protesters asking them to withdraw.
The Occupy London Stock Exchange group said it was "disappointed" by the decision to close the cathedral, in a statement posted online Friday.
The protesters had tried hard to meet the cathedral's concerns about health and safety and had reorganized the camp to reduce the risk of fire, it said.
The statement suggested the cathedral's desire for the Occupy action to end was also based on financial concerns.
"Clearly, we have become another tourist attraction on the Cathedral's doorstep -- but, since we are not a commercial concern, we are struggling to understand how we have had any financial impact on the Cathedral's revenues," it said.
The City of London Corporation, which provides local government services for the financial district, said it would "accommodate lawful protest but this should not involve a long-term campsite that blocks the highway."
City of London Corporation official Stuart Fraser said the presence of the tent city had had a significant impact on local retail businesses, as well as forcing the cathedral to close.
''We hope common sense will prevail and those camping around the Cathedral will recognise that they are damaging the integrity of their protest by their actions - and they decide to disband in a peaceful manner," he said in a statement.
In his open letter, Knowles acknowledged that the protest had been peaceful and had raised concerns about poverty inequality which were shared by the church.
"St Paul's, through its Institute and place in the City, will continue to encourage debate on many of the issues you are concerned about," the letter said.
"In the meantime, by withdrawing peacefully, you will enable us to re-open the Cathedral for people to use for prayer, worship and reflection as soon as we possibly can."
St Paul's Cathedral, designed by architect Sir Christopher Wren, was built between 1675 and 1710. A church has stood on the site near the banks of the River Thames for more than 1,400 years.