In a speech over the weekend Pope Benedict confirmed he will be coming to Britain on a four-day visit in September.

But already the visit is sounding alarm bells for progressive groups and organizations that feel under siege from the conservative pontiff.

During a speech that announced his impending visit the Pope said: "Your country is well known for its firm commitment to equality of opportunity for all members of society. Yet as you have rightly pointed out, 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. 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."

Benedict's sharp words are seen as an attack on gays and the UK's equality and anti-discrimination laws (and in particular, on a bill that is currently making its way through Parliament). Churches fear that they could face prosecution if they refused to go against their beliefs and employ gays and transsexuals and Catholics warned that they could be forced to admit women to the priesthood.

A report in The Times this weekend added: "The Church of England and Catholic bishops of England and Wales will now join forces to fight any intervention by the European Commission to win back the ground lost by the Government." In response to the Pope's visit a loose affiliation of progressive groups are already planning action. Terry Sanderson, spokesperson for the National Secular Society, said: "The taxpayer is going to be faced with a bill for £20 million for the visit – a visit in which he has already indicated he will attack equal rights and promote discrimination."

Sanderson said he would seek to bring together gay and feminist groups, family planning organizations, abortion rights and victim support groups, and anyone else who "felt under siege" from the Vatican's "current militancy."

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