EDINBURGH (Reuters) - Pope Benedict arrives in Britain on Thursday hoping to win over one of Europe’s most secular countries, but a last minute diplomatic hiccup and the possibility of a low turnout threaten the success of the visit.
The pope’s bid to get his message across at a time when the Catholic Church struggles with a global child sex-abuse scandal was made harder by comments made a senior papal aide on the eve of the trip likening England to a Third World country.
The pope also has a delicate path to tread during his four-day-trip to England and Scotland in relations with the Church of England after his offer last October making it easier for disaffected Anglicans, unhappy over women ordination and gay bishops, to convert.
Local Catholics, while acknowledging Pope Benedict lacks the charisma of his predecessor Pope John Paul, who attracted hundreds of thousands during his pastoral visit in 1982, remain positive about the trip.
“I think he is going to have a good go at winning over Britain,” Jack Valero, coordinator for the pro-Church group Catholic Voices, told Reuters.
“That has been his specialty, he is very keen on winning over secular societies through persuasion.”
The pope will receive a state welcome from Queen Elizabeth after he flies into the Scottish capital Edinburgh and later presides at an open-air Mass in nearby Glasgow in the afternoon.
But thousands of seats remain unsold, with police suggesting a park venue for the Glasgow Mass could be a third empty.
The need to travel in pre-arranged groups and the cost of entry have been cited for lower-than-expected attendance not only in Glasgow but also Birmingham where the 19th century convert Cardinal John Henry Newman will be beatified on Sunday.
Only a prayer vigil in London’s Hyde Park on Saturday is expected to be near expected capacity.
The Vatican played down the Third World comments by Cardinal Walter Kasper to a German magazine, in which he also suggested England was home to aggressive atheists.
Kasper, who recently retired as head of the Congregation for Christian Unity -- the Vatican department that oversees dialogue with Anglicans -- had been due to accompany the pope but a Vatican spokesman said he would miss it for health reasons.
Previous diplomatic incidents have dogged the trip.
In April, Britain’s Foreign Office apologised for a memorandum by a civil servant suggesting the pope should open a hospital abortion ward, bless a gay marriage and launch a papal brand of condoms.
Two months earlier, the pope criticised British equality legislation, describing it as a violation of “natural law.”
Protests are expected throughout his visit, only the second by a pope, including by the Protestant Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland and the former Northern Ireland first minister, preacher and firebrand Ian Paisley.
A handful of members from the American group SNAP, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said they would demonstrate.
The pope is expected to meet with victims, although nothing has been confirmed.
The main focus of the protests will be a march and rally in London on Saturday organised by Protest the Pope campaign, a coalition of groups including human rights campaigners and secularists.
Editing by Philip Pullella and Matthew Jones