Tuesday, 2 February 2010

No red carpet for pope in Britain

Back in September I wrote about my surprise when, during a visit to Prague, I was prevented from entering Prague Castle because the pope was paying a visit. I wasn't surprised that they weren't letting visitors in during the papal visit, that stands to reason. What seemed curious was the fact that we had been in Prague three days, made the journey all the way up the the castle, and all that time we had no idea the pope was visiting the city. Indeed, there was absolutely no sign of the visit - no banners, no news reports, nothing. People on the street seemed to either be unaware or apathetic about it. I suppose that's not surprising in the most atheistic country in Europe. But at the time, I contrasted it to the huge pomp and ceremony that accompanied the pope's visit to Paris while I was living there in the fall of 2009. You couldn't get away from all the fuss during that visit!

When I learned this week that the pope is planning a visit to the UK, another of Europe's most atheistic countries, I wondered how the visit will contrast to the ones I've witnessed in Paris and Prague. I suspect it will be an animal all its own, but disinterest may not be the main reaction from the public. The Czech Republic may be a majority atheist country, but it is still nominally Catholic. So it isn't so unusual or notable that the pope would visit. The UK is very much not a Catholic country. Historically it and Prussia were always the most virulently anti-Catholic states in Europe. Not only does the UK have a protestant state religion (with the Queen as church leader), it is also still technically illegal for an heir to the throne or a government leader to be a Catholic. One of the main holidays here actually celebrates burning Catholic effigies.

Given that the British public on both the right and left were already predisposed to not exactly be overjoyed about a papal visit, it probably didn't help the situation when the pope criticised the country's equality legislation in a letter announcing the visit. The pope called the equalities legislation, championed by Deputy Leader Harriet Harman, a "violation of natural law." The legislation forbids British employers from discriminating on the basis of gender or sexual orientation. Harman, a pioneering feminist, came out swinging against the pope's comments today, saying his assertion that the legislation forces churches to hire gays for religious roles is untrue. She's been busy telling the British media today that the non-discrimination rules do not apply to religious roles such as priests, imams or rabbis. But when it comes to non-religious jobs churches have to comply with the law like everyone else.

The pope's comments have become big news today. Just since this morning Facebook groups demanding that the British government not spend a penny on the pontiff's visit have attracted thousands of members. Even the Daily Mail, the most right-wing tabloid newspaper in Britain, took a break from its usual Harriet Harman-bashing to criticise the pope's comments today. And doesn't help that this criticism comes just a few months after the vatican openly made a bid for disillusioned Anglicans to leave the British church and join Catholicism.

However one feels about the equality bill (which really hasn't been a controversial issue here in the UK), the pope's comments had bad timing from a PR perspective. As they announce the first papal visit to the UK in 30 years, the vatian launches a blistering critique of British law. Given that Britain is a country that for hundreds of years engaged in a bitter and sometimes bloody fight against the Catholic Church, Pope Benedict's characteristic conservative bravado may have gone a step too far this time. In any event, the pope is guaranteed to be greeted by protesters rather than a red carpet when he arrives in the UK.

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