BARCELONA: Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu insisted on Saturday the Catalan giants cannot be used by either side of a political battle over Catalonia's drive to gain independence from Spain.
A powerful symbol of Catalonia across the world, Barca have been caught in the political crossfire in the weeks following an independence referendum, deemed illegal by Madrid, was marred by violence.
"We are not an instrument to be manipulated for political interests, whatever they may be," Bartomeu told club members at Barca's annual general meeting. "Nobody can appropriate our badge or flag."
The club has backed Catalonia's right to self-determination, but refused to position itself on either side of the independence debate.
And Bartomeu showed his support for Catalonia's institutions after Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy announced on Saturday that Madrid will move to dismiss Catalonia's separatist government and call fresh elections in the semi-autonomous region.
"Barcelona has always stood by the people of Catalonia and its institutions," added Bartomeu.
"So today, on the application of article 155, we must reiterate our absolute support for the democratic institutions of Catalonia chosen by its people.
"Now, more than ever we must act with serenity. Any reaction must be civil and peaceful. In the stadium too."
Bartomeu took an unpopular decision to play Barca's match against Las Palmas behind closed doors on October 1, the day of the referendum, after La Liga refused to postpone the match.
He described that decision as "one of the hardest" he has made in his three years as president, but insisted Barca were not losing touch with their core Catalan fanbase.
"No one can doubt Barca's commitment to the Catalan community. We defend the principles of democracy, the right to decide and free expression."
Bartomeu condemned the imprisonment of two pro-independence civil society leaders Jordi Sanchez and Jordi Cuixart on charges of sedition.
"It is unacceptable that in this century there are people in prison for their political ideas."
However, the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) and Omnium Cultural groups, led by Sanchez and Cuixart respectively, rejected invitations to the directors' box at the Camp Nou for Barca's Champions League match against Olympiakos on Wednesday in protest at the club's neutral stance.
The other major point of order for Bartomeu was the passing of Barca's accounts for the 2017/18 season that are expected to a club record income of 897 million euros ($1.06 billion).
And Barca's accounts are set to be further boosted by a naming rights deal to aid the cost of a 600-million-euro renovation project for the Camp Nou and surrounding areas.
"The negotiations to find a name for the Camp Nou are going well," said Bartomeu, before adding an extraordinary meeting will be called in the first half of 2018 for members to vote on the naming rights deal.
And having tied down club captain Andres Iniesta to a contract for life at the Camp Nou, members called for the same deal to be handed to five-time World Player of the Year Lionel Messi.
The Argentine agreed a new four-year deal in principle in July but is yet to put pen to paper with his current deal expiring at the end of the season.
"Messi has renewed for four years, but the club will offer him a contract for life," said Barca's CEO Oscar Grau.