VATICAN CITY, Jan. 3 (AP) -- Carrying teddy bears, toys and a message for Pope John Paul II, a small band of gay Christians from the United States gathered Wednesday at the edge of St. Peter's Square to protest Vatican teachings on homosexuality.

Except for a brief, softly sung rendition of "We Shall Overcome," the 20-minute demonstration was silent.

The 18 protesters, wearing sweatshirts emblazoned with the slogan: "God's Gay Children Bring Gifts...Bless Them," showed up about two hours after the pontiff finished his weekly public audience with tens of thousands of pilgrims.

The demonstration attracted little attention. Hundreds of people on their way to enter the Holy Door of St. Peter's Basilica during the waning days of the Vatican's Jubilee Year passed the group without taking note.

"All we want is someone to come and bless us" from the Vatican, said Mel White, executive director of Soulforce, Inc., one of the two groups protesting. He admitted they would probably wait in vain for the Vatican to send out a priest to bless them, and they did.

"I don't think they love God's gay children like they love God's straight children," White said at a news conference before the protest.

John Paul has repeatedly denounced attempts to legalize same-sex marriages or adoption by gays. Last summer, he bitterly denounced a gay pride festival in Rome as an "insult" to Christians and said homosexual acts were "contrary to natural law."

"I think it's sad when the pope expressed bitterness," said Kara Speltz, a lesbian who returned to the Roman Catholic church 13 years ago and now serves on her parish's pastoral council.

The other group involved in the demonstration was Dignity/USA, which describes itself as the largest organization of homosexual, bisexual and transgender Catholics in the United States.

Toys carried by the protesters were destined for Italian orphans. They also plan to take gifts to AIDS sufferers and battered women in Rome.

The protesters planned to return to the edge of St. Peter's Square Thursday and Friday. On Saturday, they will try to enter the square with their banners. On Wednesday, police refused to let them display the banners.

Saturday is the third anniversary of the death of a gay Italian man who set himself ablaze in St. Peter's Square to protest Vatican teachings on homosexuality.

The demonstrators originally planned to tape their protests to a door of the Vatican but later scaled back after realizing they risked offending church officials.

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