Pope starts Britain visit clouded by 'Third World' gaffe

16th September 2010, Comments 0 comments

Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Britain Thursday hoping to improve frayed ties between Catholics and Anglicans, but the start of the visit was clouded by an aide's apparent criticism of the country.

The head of the Roman Catholic Church flies in to Edinburgh and has an audience with Queen Elizabeth II at the start of the historic state visit, which also takes in Glasgow, London and the city of Birmingham in central England.

The highlight of the trip will be a beatification mass for 19th century English cardinal John Henry Newman, and it also features symbolic prayers with the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the head of the world's Anglicans.

But there is strong opposition to the four-day visit with demonstrators vowing to take to the streets and protest the pope's unbending stance on a range of issues.

Trouble reared its head even before Benedict touched down, when one of the his key advisors sparked controversy Wednesday by comparing Britain to a "Third World country" whose increasingly secular nature frustrated the Vatican.

Following the remarks, the Vatican said Cardinal Walter Kasper had dropped out of the entourage accompanying Benedict for health reasons, while British media reported he had been barred from the trip.

The Vatican insisted that Kasper's remarks had "no negative intent or dislike" for Britain.

On his arrival in Edinburgh, there will be a state reception for the 83-year-old pope at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the queen's official residence in Scotland.

He will then travel on the popemobile through the city streets before heading to Glasgow for an open-air mass at Bellahouston Park.

The pope will address an estimated 65,000 pilgrims and there will be performances from an 800-strong choir and Scottish singing star Susan Boyle, who shot to fame after being discovered on a British TV talent show.

Before the mass, Benedict will bless a nine-year-old boy who wrote and asked the pope to help stop his cancer from returning.

In an unprecedented move, pilgrims must pay up to 25 pounds (30 euros, 39 dollars) to attend the masses as a contribution towards the 20 million pound cost of the visit.

Benedict is likely to receive a more muted welcome from the country's five million Catholics than the huge crowds which greeted his predecessor John Paul II when he paid a pastoral visit to Britain 28 years ago, however.

Polls show that more than two-thirds of Britons are opposed to the state visit.

Demonstrators will take to the streets in protest at Benedict's stance on issues such as his opposition to contraception and women priests with around 2,000 expected at a march in London on Saturday under the "Protest the Pope" banner.

Abuse of children by Catholic priests will also loom large during the visit, with British victims of clerical abuse issuing a demand on the eve of the trip for the pope to go further than offering an apology.

Peter Saunders, of the National Association for People Abused in Childhood, said: "We need the pope to say, 'I will hand over all the information I have about abusing priests wherever they are in the world.'"

The pope is widely expected to meet victims of abuse during his visit.

Benedict will try to ease tensions with Anglicans on a visit that comes just 11 months since he shocked the religious world with an offer to take in dissident Anglicans angered by their church's moves to consecrate female bishops.

The pope will move from Scotland late Thursday to spend the next two days in London before moving north to Birmingham to beatify cardinal Newman, a high-profile convert to Catholicism, in an open-air mass on Sunday.

© 2010 AFP

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