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Travellers set up camp close to Newman beatification site

Archbishop Bernard Longley meets travellers at a Mass in Walsingham last year

Irish travellers hoping to be blessed by the Pope next month have set up camp in a historic beauty spot in Birmingham.

Around 16 families moved on to a field next to Sarehole Mill in Hall Green, Birmingham, on Tuesday, telling a local councillor they were in the city to attend Pope Benedict XVI’s open-air Mass in Cofton Park on September 19.

Cllr Martin Mullaney said the travellers told him they had made their way from Co Donegal and had no idea the beatification Mass for Cardinal Newman was ticketed. Pilgrim passes for the event cost £25 each, and are allocated through parish priests only.

The landscape, which is less than seven miles from the papal venue, was a childhood home of JRR Tolkein, and is believed to have inspired his Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Cllr Mullaney said: “About 16 families moved on to one of our historic parks which has links to JRR Tolkien so I went along to see them. I asked them what they were doing in Birmingham and what they said to me was: ‘We’ve come here to see the Pope because we want to get his blessing at the Mass in Birmingham’. When I asked them if they had pilgrim passes, the response was: ‘What passes?’

“Our fear now is that there is a huge community of Irish travellers on their way so we want to be proactive and make it clear that there are no spaces available. The pilgrim passes have all already been allocated to parish priests, and there will be no admission to the Mass without a pass.”

Cllr Mullaney said council officials had met with police and representatives of the Church to work out a solution. A seven-day eviction notice has now been served and the families are being encouraged to moved on to a disused car park in nearby Moseley.

Cllr Mullaney said the council was working on proposals to arrange temporary authorised sites where travellers would be permitted to stay for the duration of the Pope’s visit, adding that Catholic priests were set to visit the travellers to reiterate the position on pilgrim passes.

Peter Jennings, press secretary to the Archdiocese of Birmingham, said the archdiocese was “mindful of the pastoral needs of the travellers”. “We will be issuing a short statement in early September after Archbishop Bernard Longley returns from his summer break,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Vatican’s leading official for migrants has denied the Church is meddling in politics after it defended the Roma being expelled from France.

Last week the Pope added his voice to a number of priests who expressed discontent with President Nicolas Sarkozy’s policy of deporting 200 Romanian and Bulgarian gypsies.

Mgr Agostino Marchetto told a French religious news agency that the Church was “neither on the right nor the left nor the centre, but simply had concern for people”.