Topless activists acquitted over Paris Notre Dame raid

PARIS (Reuters) - A French court acquitted nine women from protest group Femen on Wednesday over a topless protest last year inside Paris's Notre Dame cathedral, a Catholic cathedral visited by millions of tourists and religious devotees every year.

The feminist activists mixed with hordes of queuing visitors to enter the 12th century church unspotted in 2013 - one day after Pope Benedict resigned - before bearing torsos painted with slogans such as "Pope No More" and "Get lost, homophobe".

"We are extremely happy with the decision," said Michael Ghnassia, a Femen defence lawyer who announced the verdict.

The only convictions the court handed down, he said, were suspended fines imposed on three members of the Notre Dame security staff.

The Femen women, some of whom were smacked in the face by angry Catholics before security staff bundled them out of the church, had been pursued on the grounds that they degraded a place of worship in a protest during which they tapped on the cathedral's bells with wooden sticks.

The protest, just after Pope Benedict resigned on Feb. 11 2013, was staged during a period of sometimes violent street demonstrations over a law that has legalised same-sex marriage in France, a secular republic but predominantly Catholic.

Notre Dame, straddling an island in the middle of the Seine river in the heart of Paris, was being fitted with new giant bells at the time to celebrate its 850th anniversary.

Months after the Femen incursion, tourists fled Notre Dame in panic last May after a 78-year-old opponent of gay marriage committed suicide at the altar, shooting himself in the mouth, three days after the law on same-sex marriage was adopted.

Since it was founded in Kiev in 2008, the Femen movement has won notoriety in Europe for its stands - usually topless - against sex tourism, homophobia and religious institutions.

Ahead of Wednesday's ruling, the group had warned on its Facebook page that a ruling against them would do nothing to blunt their activity.

The Sept. 8 page entry said: "Are we gonna be condemned for blasphemy? Let's hope not otherwise we will have to invade all the catholic places with our sacred boobs!"

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