Sign of the cross by Celtic goalkeeper 'was not an offence'

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The Independent Online

Prosecutors have taken the unusual step of clarifying the caution given to the Celtic player Artur Boruc after the Catholic Church in Scotland and politicians condemned the decision.

The Crown Office stres-sed that the 26-year-old goalkeeper was not reprimanded for crossing himself during an Old Firm match last season, but for other gestures he had made to the Rangers fans.

Sectarian tensions continue to infiltrate the world of Glasgow football despite the best efforts of the clubs. Rangers have been traditionally associated with Protestant supporters whereas Celtic is regarded by some as a Catholic club.

The first announcement, on Friday, by the Crown Office, that the Polish footballer would be cautioned attracted widespread condemnation. Catholic leaders said that it gave the impression that in Scotland it was an offence to make a religious gesture in public. Alex Salmond, the Scottish National Party leader, accused prosecutors of "taking leave of their senses" , and wrote to the Lord Advocate, Colin Boyd QC, claiming that the Crown Office had "bungled" the affair.

Ruth Kelly, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, added her own criticism by saying she was surprised officers had taken action against the Polish player.

The minister, a devout Catholic, said: "I must say I am surprised because this has traditionally been a country which has valued religious diversity ­ and cultural and racial diversity as well ­ and where there has been freedom of expression."

Dennis Canavan, the Independent member of the Scottish Parliament for Falkirk West, lodged a question in the Scottish Parliament asking the Lord Advocate to publish guidelines to prosecutors outlining "the circumstances, if any, whereby making the sign of the cross may constitute a criminal offence".

The statement from the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, responsible for prosecuting crime in Scotland, said: "We would wish to make it absolutely clear that the prosecution service in Scotland fully respects religious belief and practices and would not countenance formal action against individuals for acts of religious observance, but we would equally make clear that the police and prosecutors cannot ignore conduct which appears to be inciting disorder."

The Right Rev Joseph Devine, a Catholic bishop in Scotland and communications chief for the Bishops' Conference of Scotland, welcomed the "clarification". He said: "The statement, that they fully respect religious beliefs and practices and would not countenance formal action against individuals for acts of religious observance, is welcome and reassuring."

The incident was not caught on camera, but prosecutors examined witness statements and footage of the crowd's response.

In May Rangers was fined £13,300 and severely censured by Uefa, the European football governing body, over sectarian chanting by their supporters during the away leg of a Champions League tie against Villarreal in Spain.

Sectarian game

* DONALD FINDLAY In 1999 the QC resigned as vice-chairman of Rangers after he was caught on video singing 'The Billy Boys', a sectarian song, after the Rangers v Celtic Scottish Cup Final. He was also fined £3,500 by the Faculty of Advocates.

* PAUL GASCOIGNE In 1995, the Rangers midfielder provoked controversy in an Old Firm match as he mimicked playing the flute, to the fury of many Celtic supporters who saw the act as a loyalist symbol. Gascoigne, who claimed that he was unaware of the significance, was disciplined by the Scottish Football Association.

* MARK SCOTT The Celtic fan was stabbed to death in 1995, while wearing a Celtic shirt near a pub full of Rangers fans.