The protests of nearly 70 scientists, including former CERN director general Luciano Maiani, have forced Pope Benedict XVI to cancel tomorrow’s visit to La Sapienza University in Rome. The scientists, who expressed their objections in a joint letter to the university’s rector earlier this week, deemed the visit would be “incongruous” with the Pope’s previous support of the persecution of Galileo in the 17th century.

The Pope had intended to visit La Sapienza, which was founded in the 14th century by Pope Boniface VIII, to address the university at the start of the new academic year. However, the Vatican have had to abandon the event amid mounting protests from staff. Students had also been separately organizing an “anti-clerical week”. “Following the well known incidents of recent days…it was felt necessary to cancel the occurrence,” the Vatican said in a formal announcement yesterday.

Marcello Cini, a particle physicist at La Sapienza, was the first member of staff to write a letter of dissent to the rector Renato Guarini, who had organized the visit. Many of Cini’s colleagues quickly chose to back his protest by signing another letter highlighting the Pope’s contentious views on the trial of Galileo. They recalled a speech made in 1990 by the Pope, then known by his baptismal name Joseph Ratzinger, in which he quoted the Austrian science philosopher Paul Feyerabend: “In the age of Galileo the Church showed to be more faithful to reason than Galileo himself. The trial against Galileo was reasonable and just.”

The joint letter reads: “These are words that offend and humiliate us as scientists who are loyal to reason and as teachers who have dedicated our lives to the advance and dissemination of knowledge.” The letter was signed by 67 of the university’s scientists including Luciano Maiani, theorist Giorgio Parisi and Andrea Frova, author of a study into the Church’s persecution of Galileo. According to Frova, however, ten times more staff agreed with its contents but didn’t sign because they had executive duties.

The views have not been supported by Italian politicians. “No voice should be stifled in our country, least of all the Pope’s,” Romano Prodi, Italy’s prime minister, has said. Meanwhile, the mayor of Rome has described the withdrawal of the invitation as “paradoxical”.

The outburst is unusual for a country known for its religious devoutness. But Italian scientists see the Pope’s views on science as a backward turn on his predecessor John Paul II, who conceded that the Church was wrong to attack Galileo for saying that the Earth revolved around the Sun.