Critics round on Pope for UK equality attack

LONDON (Reuters) - The Pope should stick to applying European equality rules in the Vatican rather than meddling in UK legislation, a British MEP said on Tuesday.

Pope Benedict XVI holds a cross as he leads the Epiphany mass in Saint Peter Basilica at the Vatican January 6, 2010. REUTERS/Max Rossi

Speaking at a meeting of the European Parliament’s Socialists and Democrats in Rome, Stephen Hughes criticised Pope Benedict’s concern that the Equality Bill would restrict religious groups from acting in accordance with their faith.

“As a Catholic, I am appalled by the attitude of the Pope. Religious leaders should be trying to eradicate inequality, not perpetuate it,” Hughes said in a statement reproduced on his website.

“Instead of criticising the UK’s plans to improve its legislation, the Pope should ensure that existing EU legislation is properly applied in the Vatican,” Hughes said.

The Pope, who announced the first papal visit to Britain since 1982 on Monday, urged Bishops from England and Wales to make a convincing case against legislation that could force churches to hire homosexuals or transsexuals.

He said the legislation violates natural law and told the visiting bishops they should fight it with “missionary zeal.”

Human Rights groups have hit back at the Pope’s comments.

“Equality laws do not impose unjust restrictions on religious freedom,” said the head of The British Humanist Associations (BHA), Naomi Phillips in a statement.

Phillips said the Pope wanted religious institutions to be “unfettered by the laws that everyone else in society must abide by and respect.”

Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society said it was undemocratic for a religious leader and head of another state to interfere in British politics.

“I think for (the Pope) to try and encourage his bishops to interfere in the legislative status of another state is unacceptable,” Sanderson told Reuters.

The society plans to organise street protests during the Pope’s visit, expected to take place in September, and will stage a festival of films critical of the Vatican.

Editing by Steve Addison