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Pope seeks to remind Britain about God amid indifference to visit and disgust over sex abuse

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI takes his campaign to revive Christianity in an increasingly secular Europe to Britain on Thursday. He faces a daunting task in a nation largely at odds with his policies and where disgust over the church sex abuse scandal runs high.

Add to that centuries of anti-Catholic sentiment, recent tensions with the Anglican church and Benedict's plan to beatify one of the most famous Anglican converts to Catholicism, and the four-day trip is shaping up as one of his most delicate to date.

For a gaffe-prone papacy whose handling of the abuse scandal has been problematic at best, the potential for pitfalls looms large. Just hours before the visit, one of the pope's senior aides pulled out of the trip after he reportedly told a magazine that modern Britain resembles a "Third World country" with an "aggressive atheism."

The British media outrage that ensued did not bode well. Already, organizers had scaled back expectations for the turnout, saying Tuesday that only 55,000 are expected at Benedict's main event, down from 80,000.

Benedict asked for prayers for the visit and seemed almost apologetic when he thanked the British for the "vast amount of work" that had gone into preparations. The visit will cost British taxpayers 12 million pounds ($18.7 million), not counting extra policing costs, at a time when Britain is facing a crushing public debt that will likely lead to sweeping cuts in public spending and job losses.

"I have no problems with the pope coming to visit. He has the right to go anywhere in the world and the Catholics will surely welcome him," said Mark Elliott, a 48-year-old Anglican banker as he waited for the train one day last week in London.

But he added: "There are better ways to spend the money than on his trip. There are the homeless, unemployed, and charities that could use the money more; that's more important."

For the first time, pilgrims will be asked to share some of the burden, paying 25 pounds for tickets and transport to the main event: the beatification Sunday of Cardinal John Henry Newman in Birmingham.

Government officials have defended the cost, noting that Benedict is an invited head of state and that it cost far more to host the one-day meeting of the G20 finance ministers last year. Scottish Cardinal Keith O'Brien said the "moral value" of the trip, which begins Thursday when the pope is greeted by Queen Elizabeth II in Edinburgh, Scotland, far outweighs any cost.

"It improves morality in the Catholic Christian community," he said.

It's the first state visit by a pope to Britain, birthplace of the Church of England, which split with Rome in 1534 when English King Henry VIII was refused a marriage annulment.

Pope John Paul II made a non-state pastoral visit in 1982 — the first time a pontiff set foot on English soil. He was at the height of his popularity and, even though he spoke out against the Falklands War, he received a hero's welcome.

This time, amid the abuse scandal and recession, opposition to Benedict's hard line against homosexuality, abortion and using condoms to prevent AIDS has spurred opponents to organize a "Protest the Pope" march Saturday.

"Pope Nope" T-shirts have been spotted around London. Some of London's famed double-decker buses sport "Pope Benedict Ordain Women Now!" ads. Public discussions on the celibacy requirement for priests in the Roman Catholic Church have been scheduled.

Such hostility isn't unique to Britain and Benedict is no stranger to opposition. But the tone is a reminder of a historic divide between the officially Protestant nation and the Catholic Church. To this day Britons light fireworks each year to mark the failed gunpowder plot of 1605, in which Guy Fawkes and other Catholic plotters tried to blow up Parliament and restore Catholic rule to England.

In the months leading up to the visit, there had even been talk of arresting the pope for an alleged systematic cover-up of sexual abuses by priests.

Matters weren't helped by a now-infamous Foreign Office memo, leaked to a newspaper in April, in which junior staffers joked that Benedict could open an abortion clinic, launch a range of condoms or bless a gay marriage during his visit.

Amid such opposition, an Ipsos Mori poll conducted for the Catholic magazine The Tablet and published last week found widespread indifference among British to the visit, with some 63 percent neither in favor nor against it. The poll did, however, find that Benedict was a more recognizable figure than the spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.

The sex abuse scandal hasn't been on British front pages for some time, but it exploded anew in Belgium last week following the publication of an independent report in which hundreds of victims revealed harrowing accounts of molestation that resulted in at least 13 suicides.

Vatican officials have declined to confirm that Benedict will meet abuse victims, noting that such meetings have never been confirmed until after they have occurred. But local organizers have said arrangements are being made.

Catholic officials have brushed off opposition to the visit and assured that the sex scandal won't overshadow the welcome Benedict will receive from Catholics, who make up less than 10 percent of the population. They recall that Benedict has gone to far more hostile countries in his 16 previous foreign trips as pope.

But even on the eve of the visit Britain's media was ruffled by comments reportedly made by one of the pontiff's senior aides that the U.K. is aggressively atheist and resembles a developing nation.

"Britain today is a secularized, pluralistic country. If you arrive at Heathrow airport, you sometimes think you had arrived in a third-world country," Walter Kasper, a cardinal who recently retired from the Vatican's office in charge of relations with other Christian denominations, reportedly told Germany's Focus magazine this week.

Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said Cardinal Kasper's comments weren't intended to slight the United Kingdom, but simply reflected the cultural diversity instantly evident upon landing in the capital.

He intended to refer to "a cosmopolitan reality, a melting pot of ordinary humanity and all of its diversity and its problems," Lombardi added.

Britain's Catholic Church quickly distanced itself from Kasper's remarks, describing them as the personal views of one individual. A government statement echoed that sentiment and stressed that it remained certain the pope's visit would be a success.

The Vatican confirmed Kasper was pulling out of the trip at the last minute, but said it was due to illness and not related to the comments.

Regardless, his absence marks the second time that Kasper, who for years pursued dialogue with the Anglican Church, had missed a major event in Anglican Catholic relations since the Vatican last year issued an unprecedented invitation for disaffected Anglicans to convert. Officials in Kasper's former office have said they were not consulted by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith about the pope's invitation and have said privately they were taken aback by it.

"There's always controversy about papal visits," said the Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols, the head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales. "Wherever he goes, there's always a period of criticism of the church. And then when he arrives, the sun comes out."

But Nichols acknowledged there would unlikely be the "uncountable crowds" that were seen during John Paul's visit.

The main reason for the visit is the beatification of Newman, the 19th century convert who was enormously influential in both the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church. He converted in 1845, and Benedict is expected to hold him up as a model for all Christians, a bridge figure for Anglicans and Catholics at a time when Christianity as a whole is on the wane in Europe.

"His beatification is an opportunity — which it is for the pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury — to speak to the nation with a message of hope, and indeed to speak to the church around the world," said Canon David Richardson, the Archbishop of Canterbury's representative to the Vatican.

Monsignor Mark Langham, the British-born Vatican official in charge of relations with Anglicans, acknowledged there were "plenty of wounds there, problems if you want to look for them and minefields," in Benedict's trip.

"But we're also aware at how far we've come, how much we've moved on," he said, speaking at the Venerable English College, the English seminary in Rome where 44 former students were killed for their faith over the centuries in England.

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Associated Press writers Danica Kirka, Sylvia Hui, Gillian Smith and David Stringer contributed to this report from London. Juergen Baetz contributed from Berlin.