BARCELONA – Violence and the disparaging of others have no place in the dispute over Catalonia's independence, Spanish King Felipe VI said during a visit with his family to the northeastern region Monday that was greeted with widespread protests.
The Spanish monarch has long been the target of fierce criticism by separatists. His speech two years ago calling for Spanish unity after police violently cracked down on those who tried to cast votes in a banned independence referendum angered many and fueled republican sentiment.
Monday's royal visit was the first since the imprisonment of nine politicians and activists who led the 2017 drive for secession, a ruling that has been met with massive protests this month that have turned unusually violent at times. More than 500 have been injured in the riots, roughly half of them police officers, and dozens have been arrested.
About 2,000 protesters wielding Spanish republican flags and pro-independence symbols banged kitchen pots and blocked access to the Barcelona venue where Felipe and other members of the Spanish royal family attended an award ceremony.
Some of the guests at the Princess of Girona Awards for young talent were unable to enter the conference center on time. Surrounded by police in anti-riot gear, the protesters chanted "Go Away!" and burned pictures of the Spanish monarch.
Inside, the king, Queen Letizia and the couple's two daughters, princesses Leonor and Sofia, were greeted with enthusiastic applause. Addressing the auditorium in the region's Catalan language, Felipe said: "In today's reality there can't be room for violence, intolerance or contempt for the rights of others."
The heir to the Spanish throne, 14-year-old Princess Leonor, also made her Catalan-speaking debut at the ceremony, adding that "Catalonia will always have a special place in my heart." It was Leonor's second public speech.
Roughly half of the people of Catalonia are in favor of seceding from Spain, according to official surveys and recent election results. The issue will dominate the country's general election on Sunday, when voters elect lawmakers to the next parliament, which will in turn choose Spain's next prime minister.