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Pope confirms Britain visit, attacks equality bill

ROME (Reuters) - Pope Benedict confirmed on Monday he would make the first papal visit to Britain since 1982 while criticising legislation that could force churches to hire homosexuals or transsexuals as a violation of “natural law.”

Pope Benedict XVI waves at the end of the Epiphany mass in Saint Peter Basilica at the Vatican January 6, 2010. REUTERS/Max Rossi

In a speech to bishops from England and Wales, Benedict said he looked forward to witnessing at first hand the faith of Catholics in England and Wales during “my forthcoming Apostolic visit to Great Britain.”

It was the first time the pope publicly confirmed the trip. He did not give a time but church officials said it is expected to take place in September and will include a visit to Scotland, which has its own Catholic bishops’ conference.

A statement issued on behalf of Prime Minister Gordon Brown said:

“The Prime Minister and Sarah Brown are absolutely delighted that His Holiness has announced he will be visiting Britain later this year. It will be a moving and momentous occasion for the entire country and he will receive the warmest of welcomes.”

The papal visit will be the first to Britain since Pope John Paul II visited in 1982.

In his speech, the pope referred to a planned Equality Bill which churches fear may strip them of the right to turn down applicants for jobs if they are actively homosexual or have changed their gender.

“Your country is well known for its firm commitment to equality of opportunity for all members of society. Yet ... the effect of some of the legislation designed to achieve this goal has been to impose unjust limitations on the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs,” he told the bishops.

“In some respects it actually violates the natural law upon which the equality of all human beings is grounded and by which it is guaranteed,” he said.

The bill is being discussed in the House of Lords.

A spokeswoman for the Equality Office said:

“We believe everyone should have a fair chance in life and not be discriminated against. The Equality Bill will make Britain a fairer and more equal place.”

The Church of England, mother church of Anglicans worldwide, has expressed concern over the bill, warning the government that if it passes, clergy may be forced to perform marriages where one of the couple has had a sex change.

Other religious groups also have expressed concern.

Benedict urged the bishops to make their voices heard and “convincingly” defend Catholic moral teaching.

“Continue to insist upon your right to participate in national debate through respectful dialogue with other elements in society,” he said.

He also spoke of the upcoming beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman, one of the most prominent English converts from Anglicanism to Catholicism.

Newman, who lived from 1801 to 1890 and became a Catholic in 1845, was a key figure in the Oxford Movement, which tried to move the Church of England closer to Rome.

No date has been set for the beatification, but Archbishop Vincent Nichols, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales, told reporters “it is our fervent hope and expectation” that the pope perform the ceremony during the visit.

Additional reporting by Avril Ormsby in London; Editing by Michael Roddy