Pope's aide quits visit to 'Third-World' Britain
FOR the past decade he has been the senior Vatican figure in charge of promoting Christian unity around the world.
But last night Cardinal Walter Kasper pulled out of the Pope's historic visit to Britain after saying it resembled a "Third World country" where "aggressive new atheism" is rife.
Officials insisted that the 77- year-old had dropped out of the trip for medical reasons, as he had been ill "for some days".
The Vatican, the Roman Catholic hierarchy in England and Wales and the British government are all desperate for the first state papal visit to Britain to be a success.
However, the preparations have suffered a number of setbacks and thousands of tickets remain unsold for the large open-air Masses.
Secular groups, meanwhile, have led protests against the £10m (€12m) cost of the visit at a time of public sector cuts.
Victims of clergy abuse have also expressed anger that the Pope will be greeted by Queen Elizabeth today at the start of a full state visit, when the Catholic Church stands accused of covering up the activities of paedophile priests.
Cardinal Kasper's presence will be missed during Benedict XVI's visit to Britain, as he is regarded as being more liberal than his fellow German, as well as an expert on ecumenical dialogue.
The cardinal's abrupt withdrawal prompted speculation in Rome that it was linked to an interview he gave this week to 'Focus', a German news magazine.
In an article headlined "A Third World country" he was quoted as saying: "When you arrive at Heathrow you think at times that you've landed in a Third World country."
He has visited the country three times in recent years.
Monsignor Oliver Lahl, his secretary, said the remark was a reference to the diverse, multi-cultural population of Britain.
Cardinal Kasper however, said that Britain was a "secular and pluralist" country in which there was a "distance from God", noting that there was "a crisis of faith" in much of the West.
He referred to the case of a British Airways employee, Nadia Eweida, who was suspended by the airline in 2006 after she refused to stop wearing a crucifix necklace.
He also alluded to the activities of prominent atheists such as Professor Richard Dawkins, author of 'The God Delusion'.
Cardinal Kasper said Christians in Britain suffered discrimination -- "above all by an aggressive new atheism. If you wear a cross on British Airways, you are discriminated against".
And, in a break with tradition, the Pope is returning to Rome with Alitalia rather than Britain's flag carrier.
The cardinal also said the Catholic Church would "never" allow the ordination of women. Asked if it might soften its position on women priests in 100 or 200 years, he said: "I'm not a prophet, but I don't think so."
He had been due to take part in talks on ecumenicalism with senior Church of England figures this week, and predicted in the interview "a difficult dialogue".
The cardinal said Pope Benedict was keen to find a "common strategy" with the queen in defending Christian faith in Europe.
A Vatican source denied that the cardinal's withdrawal was a blow to the Pope's trip, but said that Cardinal Kasper's "expertise" on ecumenical dialogue would be "much missed".
"He is quite a liberal figure who doesn't always see eye-to-eye with the Pope, and he has been very friendly towards the Anglicans," the source said. (© Daily Telegraph, London)