Cardinal Walter Kasper, a senior Vatican official and a close aide to Pope Benedict XVI, has pulled out of accompanying the Pope on his visit to Britain after he described the UK as a "Third World country" where Christians are the victims of "an aggressive new atheism".
The senior cleric made his remarks in an interview with the German magazine Focus. Vatican officials stressed his absence was purely for "health reasons" and not because of the interview. But his comments will cause embarrassment in a papal entourage already jittery about criticism aimed at the Pope.
In a discussion on the nature of secularism in the UK, Cardinal Kasper was quoted as saying: "When you land at Heathrow you think at times you have landed in a Third World country."
Asked whether he thought Christians were discriminated against, the 77-year-old added: "Yes. Above all, an aggressive new atheism has spread through Britain. If, for example, you wear a cross on British Airways, you are discriminated against." It was not clear whether the cardinal was accusing BA of discriminating against Christian passengers or if he was referring to the legal battle between the airline and an employee who was disciplined for refusing to remove her crucifix.
Fr Federico Lombardi, the Vatican's chief spokesman, told The Independent that the Cardinal had been referring to the racial diversity of Britain and did not mean it as a slight. "Cardinal Kasper had no negative intentions or lowered appreciation towards the United Kingdom," he said.
The absence of Cardinal Kasper, a fluent English speaker, will be keenly felt at the Pope's ecumenical meetings with the Archbishop of Canterbury tomorrow. Tensions have risen after the Vatican made it easier for Anglo-Catholics to defect to Rome if they oppose the consecration of women and gay bishops. The cardinal was until recently head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and had experience reaching out to Anglicanism, which he called "a difficult dialogue". His successor, Kurt Koch, a Swiss archbishop, will join the Pope's visit.
As final preparations took place yesterday in Glasgow's Bellahouston Park, where the first of the Pope's open-air Masses will be held, victims of clerical abuse held a press conference in London to explain why they are protesting. Peter Saunders, the chief executive of the National Association for People Abused in Childhood, echoed demands from Amnesty International for the Vatican to open any confidential files it has on abusive priests. He 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 Catholic Church in England and Wales and in Scotland says it has done more than the Church in many other countries to prevent abuse by clergy. After scandals a decade ago, it implemented the recommendations of a 2001 report which said church officials, including volunteers, should be subject to police checks and any allegations of abuse investigated swiftly.
Benedict's visit, which begins at 10.30am with the arrival of the papal jet in Edinburgh, is the first time a Pope has set foot on British soil in an official state capacity. It is expected there will be protests by groups who disagree with the Vatican on gay rights, the role of women in the Church, clerical celibacy, the use of contraception to prevent HIV's spread, and the abuse crisis.
The visit coincides with Sexual Awareness Week, which has been seized upon by sexual-health charities opposed to the Vatican's teachings on contraception. In a letter published yesterday, the National Aids Trust and the Family Planning Association said: "The use of condoms is a crucial part of the fight against the spread of HIV and it is, at best, irresponsible to oppose this."
The atheist author Richard Dawkins also said he would hold a talk outside Downing Street on Saturday morning as the Pope visits David Cameron. He will be accompanied by Fr Bernard Lynch, one of the few openly gay Catholic priests, who worked with people dying of Aids. He said: "I'd like to change the whole dialectics of how the Church talks about homosexuality. [Cardinal Ratzinger's] teachings were used as a baton to attack every human and civil right sought after by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people."
Adding to the hostile reception will be an ice-cream company, annoyed that one of its advertisements has been banned. Antonio Federici's advert showed a pregnant nun eating ice-cream in a church, with a slogan "immaculately conceived". The Advertising Standards Authority has banned it, saying it mocked Roman Catholic beliefs. The company will position similar posters in London for the papal visit.