Pope starts Britain visit clouded by 'Third World' row
Pope Benedict XVI flew to Britain Thursday for a historic state visit clouded by a row sparked by one of his aides who described it as an "aggressively" secular "Third World country".
The head of Catholics in England and Wales said Cardinal Walter Kasper's comments were "inexplicable", defended Britain's multiculturalism and stressed that the criticism did not reflect the pope's own opinion.
Benedict's four-day visit, only the second by the head of the Roman Catholic Church since English king Henry VIII broke with Rome in 1534, is aimed at improving frayed ties between Anglicans and Catholics.
But even before the row over Kasper's comments to a German magazine, there was strong opposition to the pope's visit, with protests planned against his views on a range of issues including clerical child sex abuse.
The pontiff left Rome Thursday for Edinburgh, where he will be greeted by Queen Elizabeth II before continuing to Glasgow, on the west coast of Scotland, London and the central English city of Birmingham.
The highlight of the trip will be a beatification mass for 19th-century English cardinal John Henry Newman, and will also feature symbolic prayers with the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the head of the world's Anglicans.
Kasper's comments to Focus magazine ensured a fresh round of controversy even before Benedict touched down.
"England is a secularised, pluralistic country these days," he told the magazine.
"When you land at Heathrow Airport, you sometimes think you might have landed in a Third World country.
"In England in particular, an aggressive neo-atheism has spread," he added.
Following the remarks, the Vatican said the cardinal had dropped out of the entourage accompanying Benedict for health reasons.
It insisted Kasper's remarks had "no negative intent or dislike" for Britain.
But England's top Catholic, Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols, told the BBC: "On face value I find the remarks of Cardinal Kasper quite inexplicable.
"This is a very diverse country and we rejoice in that diversity."
On his arrival in Edinburgh, the 83-year-old pope will have a state reception at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the queen's official residence in Scotland, before travelling by popemobile through the city.
Later Thursday, he will address 65,000 pilgrims in an open-air mass at Bellahouston Park in Glasgow.
Before the mass, Benedict will bless a nine-year-old boy who wrote to the pope asking him 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.
Polls show that more than two-thirds of Britons are opposed to the state visit and protests are planned on every stage of the pope's journey, with about 2,000 expected at a march in London on Saturday.
They oppose his position on contraception, gay rights and female priests.
The controversy of the abuse of children by Catholic priests will also loom large during the visit.
On the eve of the trip, British victims of clerical abuse issued a demand on 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 also try to ease tensions with Anglicans on a visit that comes just 11 months since the Vatican offered to take in dissident Anglicans angered by their church's moves to consecrate female bishops.
© 2010 AFP