SECRETARY of State Owen Paterson has said it was an honour to meet Pope Benedict at the Vatican.
Mr Paterson met the Pope with a delegation of other UK ministers during a two-day visit to the Vatican, returning the Pope’s visit to the UK in September 2010.
There has been speculation in recent months about a possible Papal visit to Northern Ireland, and Roman Catholic cardinal Sean Brady, who has invited the Pope to visit both the Republic and Northern Ireland in June, said Mr Paterson’s presence in the delegation was significant.
However, in a Northern Ireland Office statement last night about Mr Paterson’s meeting with the Pope, there was no mention of such a Papal visit having been discussed.
In the statement Mr Paterson said: “It was an honour to meet with Pope Benedict once again.
“I am pleased that His Holiness continues to take a deep personal interest in Northern Ireland and its people. Along with His Holiness I look forward to seeing the peace we currently enjoy continue to grow and flourish.”
The statement said that the delegation as a whole discussed issues including “inter-faith dialogue, human rights, foreign policy, combating climate change, international development, and cultural relations”.
Conservative co-chairman Baroness Warsi led the delegation and in the first speech to staff and students of the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy by an outside minister, she compared the intolerance of religion with totalitarian regimes.
The audience at the Vatican comes after the Muslim Cabinet minister called for Europe to be “more confident in its Christianity” and hit out at “militant secularisation”.
“My theory is that we are so afraid — and rightly so — of going backwards in history to the bad days when religion was imposed on people by despotic regimes that we have got to the stage where aggressive secularism is being imposed by stealth,” she said.
“Leaving us with the ironic situation where, to stave off intolerance against minorities, we end up being intolerant towards religion itself.
“For me, one of the most worrying aspects about this militant secularisation is that at its core and in its instincts it is deeply intolerant.
“It demonstrates similar traits to totalitarian regimes — denying people the right to a religious identity and failing to understand the relationship between religious loyalty and loyalty to the state.”
The visit comes amid the fallout from last week’s High Court ruling that prayers cannot be a formal part of local council meetings.
The visit marks 30 years of full UK-Vatican diplomatic relations.