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Concentric circles of antipapal fury await the Pope in Britain

On Thursday, when Pope Benedict XVI steps off his private plane in Edinburgh for the first papal visit to Britain in 28 years, he won't be bending down to kiss the soil of Britain - a custom, begun by his predecessor John Paul II, that he has abandoned.

In any case, Britain does not seem prepared to kiss him back. While the Pope's visit - the first time a pontiff has come to Britain as a head of state, rather than a religious figure - is intended to heal a widening schism between the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, "rarely has a religious leader's visit been anticipated with the level of dissent, hostility and open contempt seen in Britain this week.

Police are spending record sums, estimated at £10-million per day, protecting the pontiff against expected mass protests in one of Europe's least religious countries, where the cover-up of child rape by Vatican officials has galvanized public opinion.

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But British Catholics seem equally indifferent to their spiritual leader's visit. A public-opinion poll by Ipsos MORI showed that only 6 per cent of believers planned to attend the Pope's masses, and only 11 per cent felt the Vatican had dealt with the child-abuse scandal well.

Another poll, by ComRes for the BBC, showed that more than half of British Catholics have had their faith shaken by the child sex-abuse scandal. And, in an indication of the country's liberal leanings, a full 62 per cent want to see women ordained as priests, a position the conservative Pope Benedict has vociferously opposed.

When his predecessor arrived in 1982, John Paul was received by enormous, cheering crowds. Even though this will be a media spectacle - the BBC alone is sending 300 staff to Scotland to cover the tour's first day - its mood could not be more different. For the former cardinal Ratzinger, the four-day north-south trip across Britain may feel more like traversing concentric circles of antipapal fury.

This is the land that has produced the most outspoken and well-organized anti-religious voices in the world, and some of them - including noted British atheist campaigners Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens - have called for the Pope's arrest. Stephen Hawking, the Oxford University physicist, chose the week before the Pope's visit to declare that there was no possibility of any spiritual origin to the universe, a statement that some say was aimed at the Vatican.

More serious challenges may also await. Monday saw the release of a carefully argued legal brief by Geoffrey Robertson, a well-regarded human-rights lawyer, making the case for criminal actions against the Pope for his alleged role in covering up child sex abuse.

"He can't be arrested on this visit because he is here as a head of state rather than a religious leader, and therefore has immunity," Mr. Robertson said, "but he clearly falls under international law, for having assisted in the protection of sex offenders in a mass atrocity, and could be prosecuted in international law under the doctrine of command responsibility."

Mr. Robertson's book outlining his legal argument, The Case of the Pope, has had a friendly reception in Britain, and this could give the Vatican cause to worry: It was the British government, using legal arguments strongly similar to those presented by Mr. Robertson, that arrested the former Chilean leader Augusto Pinochet in March, 2000, only releasing him because of ill health. The House of Lords ruled, after a year-long debate, that former heads of state do not have legal immunity in Britain - a doctrine that could apply to the Pope, were he to visit as a religious leader.

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"I think it's important for the church to recognize that it is not above the law," Mr. Robertson said.

While there is no indication that British officials will try to charge him, the Pope will face tense moments within his own community as he holds mass at the Palace of Westminster, presides over two major outdoor vigils and beatifies cardinal John Henry Newman, the nineteenth-century English writer and theologian who converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism.

Those masses are a source of controversy themselves, as the church for the first time is charging admission fees, including a £25 entry fee in London, to attend the outdoor services.

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About the Author
International-Affairs Columnist

Doug Saunders writes the Globe and Mail's international-affairs column, and also serves as the paper's online opinion and debate editor. He has been a writer with the Globe since 1995, and has extensive experience as a foreign correspondent, having run the Globe's foreign bureaus in Los Angeles and London.He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and educated in Toronto. More

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