LONDON - Protesters who have camped outside St. Paul's Cathedral in central London for six days have forced the venerable cathedral to close to visitors for the first time since World War II, church officials said Friday.
The Dean of St. Paul's, Rev. Graeme Knowles, said the decision to shut the doors of the iconic London church to visitors and tourists following the afternoon service was made with "a heavy heart" because of health and safety concerns.
He urged the protesters — numbering roughly 500, according to organizers, allied with the "Occupy Wall Street" demonstrations — to leave now that they have made their point.
"I'm asking the protesters to recognize the huge issues facing us at this time, and asking them to leave the vicinity of the building so that the cathedral can reopen as soon as possible," he told reporters.
Knowles stressed that he recognizes the group's right to protest but wants them to recognize that the church also has "a right to open for our visitors."
There was no set date for the reopening of the cathedral, which was designed by Christopher Wren and has hosted numerous royal ceremonies. The cathedral is where Prince Charles married his first wife, the late Princess Diana, in a ceremony televised worldwide in 1981.
The protesters, who have set up about 100 tents around the church, arrived last Saturday as part of a series of protests in many cities across the world in solidarity with the "Occupy Wall Street" activists in New York. The group decamped to the cathedral's grounds after police blocked them from entering the London Stock Exchange building near it.
Protesters said they had done all they could to address the cathedral's concerns, and showed no intention to leave.
"It's about deciding when it's no longer effective to be here," said Ian Chamberlain, 27, a self-employed researcher. "Many of us are determined to stay here as long as possible."
Protester Diane Richards, 36, said the cathedral closure was unnecessary because the impromptu camp has been safe and well organized.
"I'm really disappointed, because there has been no violence here," she said of the decision, which church officials had hinted at in recent days.
Knowles said potential health and fire problems — notably smoking in tented areas and the presence of flammable liquids and stoves set up by protesters — were at the heart of the issue because the church has an obligation to keep visitors safe.
Earlier this week, the church said the "increased scale and nature" of the temporary camp could make it more difficult for the cathedral to stay open for worshippers and tourists.
The protesters have drawn a mixed response from Londoners, especially the many well-heeled bankers who work in the nearby financial district known as the City.
The movement has received many donated food items and blankets from the public and some City workers were seen deep in discussion with the activists, but others were more skeptical of their cause.
"I have a sneaking suspicion they don't know what their message is," lawyer Tom Day said after reading some of the protesters' messages posted at the tent city.