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LONDON (RNS) A senior Vatican cardinal withdrew from Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to Britain, after comparing it to a “Third World country” and saying it was marked by a “new and aggressive atheism.”
The Vatican announced on Wednesday (Sept. 15) that Cardinal Walter Kasper would not be part of the papal entourage that leaves Thursday for a four-day visit to Scotland and England. The Vatican said the change was due to illness.

Kasper, 77, who retired earlier this year as head of the Vatican’s ecumenical office, made his remarks in an interview with the German magazine Focus.

“When you land at Heathrow you think at times you have landed in a Third World country,” the German cardinal said, according to the BBC.

The Vatican denied that Kasper had intended any “slight,” and was merely remarking on Britain’s ethnic diversity.

Kasper also complained that passengers on British Airways suffered “discrimination” if they wore a cross.

The cardinal was the Vatican’s primary representative in ecumenical relations with other Christian denominations, including the (Anglican) Church of England. He would have taken part in an ecumenical service in London on Saturday with Benedict and Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury, leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

Anglican-Catholic relations have been strained since last year, when the Vatican announced it would make it easier for Anglicans to convert, by allowing them to retain much of their music, liturgy and forms of governance in special Catholic dioceses.

Kasper was not identified with that initiative, however; he had earlier made several public statements discouraging en masse conversions by Anglicans to the Catholic Church.

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