Pope faces protests and delicate diplomacy in Britain

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Pope Benedict XVI begins a historic state visit to Britain Thursday hoping to improve strained links between Catholics and Anglicans but facing anger from victims of paedophile priests.

The pope will visit Edinburgh, Glasgow, London and the city of Birmingham in central England, where the highlight of the four-day trip takes place with a beatification mass for 19th century English cardinal John Henry Newman.

The visit features an audience with Queen Elizabeth II in Edinburgh, two open-air masses and a prayer vigil, as well as highly symbolic prayers with the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the head of the world's Anglicans.

But in a sign of the protests the pope is likely to face, British victims of abuse held a press conference in London Wednesday to demand he go further than offer an apology for their treatment.

Peter Saunders, chief executive 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. I will hand it over to the authorities of the countries where these people are being protected.'"

The pope is widely expected to meet victims of abuse during his visit, but the survivors said they were unaware of anyone being offered a meeting.

Another victim, 45-year-old Chris Daly, told the event that the physical and emotional abuse he suffered at the hands of nuns in a Scottish children's home in the 1970s "has cast a shadow as long as a lifetime".

"I'm broken by what happened to me. People say that this is historic, this is in the past, but survivors live with the legacy of the abuse every day," he said.

The issue of paedophile priests has been thrown back into the spotlight with the publication this week of a plan to deal with priests in Belgium who have sexually abused children.

But Benedict will also face protests against his unbending stance on issues such as his opposition to contraception and women priests when 2,000 demonstrators march through London on Saturday under the "Protest the Pope" banner.

Prime Minister David Cameron acknowledged that many Britons disagree with the pope's views.

"Of course, not everyone will agree with everything the pope says, but that shouldn't prevent us from acknowledging that the pope's broader message can help challenge us to ask searching questions about our society and how we treat ourselves and each other," he said in a video message.

Benedict will have an audience with the queen after flying in to Edinburgh, before taking to the popemobile for the first time in the visit ahead of an open-air mass at Bellahouston Park in Glasgow.

On Wednesday, the finishing touches were being put to giant stage and marble altar at the park from which the pope will address an estimated 65,000 pilgrims.

The 83-year-old pope is likely to receive a more muted welcome from Britain's five million Catholics than his predecessor John Paul II, who was greeted by huge crowds when he paid a pastoral visit to Britain 28 years ago.

The Glasgow mass is set to be 10,000 people under capacity, and while crowds of up to 80,000 are expected for the main events, it is a far cry from the 300,000-plus who flocked to see a mass given by John Paul II in 1982.

More than two-thirds of Britons are opposed to the visit, according to a poll in The Times newspaper Tuesday, because of the cost or the pope's views.

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, with the government contributing up to 12 million pounds.

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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