On the eve of the Pope's visit to the United Kingdom, one of his top aides has pulled out of the tour after comparing Britain to a "third world" country, the BBC reports.
Cardinal Walter Kasper was scheduled to be a part of the pontiff's entourage for the four-day tour, which begins Thursday. The Vatican says he is pulling out due to illness and that the decision has nothing to do with his comments.
Kasper made the 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-born cardinal is quoted as saying by the Telegraph.
Asked whether Christians were discriminated against in the UK, Kasper is said to have answered: "Yes. Above all, an aggressive new atheism has spread through Britain," according to the Guardian.
Here's how the Guardian assessed the impact of Kasper's absence:
The last-minute withdrawal of the German cardinal has led to a flurry of activity in the Vatican, because he was to have played a central role in the ecumenical aspects of the pope's visit. Until July, Kasper was the head of the department that deals with relations with other Christian denominations, where he had worked since 1999.
His successor, a Swiss archbishop, Kurt Koch, speaks English, but he is not as fluent as Kasper. He also has far less experience of dealing with what Cardinal Kasper in his Focus interview called the "difficult dialogue" with the Church of England.
A number of protests are planned for the Pope's visit.