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Pressure grows for 'third world' cardinal to say sorry

A papal aide who compared the UK to a "Third World country" was facing growing pressure to apologise today as the Pope flew in for his historic visit.

German-born Cardinal Walter Kasper, 77, was not in the Pope's entourage, but Vatican officials attributed his absence to ill health.

He made his remarks during an interview with the German magazine Focus.

He commented on the Godlessness of a section of English society, claiming Britain was facing an "aggressive new atheism" and "Christians were at a disadvantage".

Asked about the protests expected to greet the Pope's visit, he remarked on Britain's multi-cultural inhabitants, telling the magazine that someone landing at Heathrow airport might think they were in a "Third World country" as there was such a variety of faces there.

Cardinal Keith O'Brien, leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, said he expected the cardinal to say sorry.

Commenting on the interview today, Cardinal O'Brien told BBC Radio Scotland: "That was unfortunate and each and every person's aides sometimes do make awkward, difficult remarks.

"Sometimes we make awkward, difficult remarks ourselves.

"And simply, if we do that sort of thing we apologise for it, and I'm sure Cardinal Kasper will apologise for any intemperate remarks which he made some time ago."

The Catholic Church in England and Wales also distanced itself from Cardinal Kasper's comments, saying they were "the personal views of one individual", but the remarks threatened to overshadow the first state visit by a pontiff to Britain.

The first stop on Pope Benedict's visit was Scotland where he was meeting the Queen and addressing thousands of pilgrims at an open-air mass before travelling to London.

The four-day trip includes a meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron and a prayer vigil in London's Hyde Park.

It culminates in a beatification ceremony for Cardinal John Henry Newman in Birmingham on Sunday.

It is the first papal trip to Britain since Pope John Paul II made a pastoral visit in 1982 following an invitation from the Church.

Pope Benedict will be the guest of the Queen and Government on this occasion, making it the first state visit by a pontiff.

The invitation has been criticised by a number of groups, including gay and women's rights organisations.

Pope Benedict XVI, who was elected in 2005, has faced calls to address public concern over the sexual and physical abuse of children by priests.

Last year two reports were published detailing years of mistreatment by priests and nuns in Ireland, prompting an apology from the Vatican.

Victims also came forward in Austria, Switzerland, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany and the US.