Cardinal Walter Kasper was supposed to take part in Pope Benedict XVI's four-day trip to Great Britain but pulled out at the last minute, citing health problems. The decision came, though, just after his outlandish comments comparing England to a Third World country were printed in an interview with German magazine Focus, suggesting that he may have been disallowed by the Vatican from travelling with the entourage.
"England is a secularised, pluralistic country these days. […] An aggressive neo-atheism has spread,” said the German-born cardinal, who is a leading figure on inter-Christian dialogue in the Vatican. He also commented on racial diversity in Britain, saying "when you land at Heathrow airport, you sometimes think you might have landed in a Third World country".
The Vatican immediately tried to patch over the comments by suggesting that his meaning had been misinterpreted. But in the UK, where the pope’s visit faces widespread public opposition, the cardinal’s comments worsened the outlook for Benedict XVI’s tour, due to start on Thursday. Anti-pope demonstrations are planned throughout Britain.
Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association, told France24.com: “Unlike the Holy See, the UK is a full signatory to international conventions such as the European Convention on Human Rights, so we don’t need any lectures from this cardinal. The decline of the power of the church in the UK is not discrimination against the church, it is in fact a loss of privilege to the church which prevents the discrimination of others.”
Copson will speak at a public demonstration in London on Saturday scheduled to coincide with the pope’s appearance in the capital. The event is being promoted on a Facebook group
which already has almost 10,000 members.
In another blow to the visit, more than 50 leading public figures including humorist Stephen Fry and science writer Richard Dawkins signed an open letter to the Guardian newspaper
on Wednesday, arguing that the pope did not merit the “honour” of a UK state visit. “The state and organisation of which [the pope] is head has been responsible for: opposing the distribution of condoms and so increasing large families in poor countries and the spread of Aids; promoting segregated education; denying abortion to even the most vulnerable women; opposing equal rights for lesbians, gay, bisexual and transgender people; and failing to address the many cases of abuse of children within its own organisation”.
The pope’s visit will cost UK taxpayers some 12 million pounds plus one million in police security. It is only the second visit to Britain by a pope since English king Henry VIII broke with the Church of Rome in 1534. The trip comes at a difficult time between the Anglican and Catholic churches, after the latter made it easier for disaffected Anglican priests to defect.
Public opinion of the Catholic Church is at a particularly low point due to disgust over a series of paedophile scandals around the world. Victims of abuse by Catholic priests urged the Vatican to turn in suspected offenders to the police on the occasion of the pope’s visit, and also plan to take to the streets in protest of the pope’s visit.