VATICAN CITY (AFP) - Pope Benedict XVI chided Britain for its gay-friendly laws on Monday as he confirmed plans to visit the country for the first time as head of the Roman Catholic Church.


"Your country is well known for its firm commitment to equality of opportunity," the pope said in a letter to the bishops of England and Wales.

However, "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 wrote.

Observers said the pontiff was referring to legislation that took effect on January 1, 2009, preventing adoption agencies -- including Catholic ones -- from discriminating against gay couples.

A British Catholic official confirmed on Monday that the 82-year-old pontiff is to visit Britain later this year.

Alexander Desforges, director of the Catholic Communications Network, said no dates had yet been set for the visit, but it is believed the pontiff will come to Britain in September and will likely stay for several days.

Last year, Britain's Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy was quoted as saying ministers had drawn up a programme for a papal visit from September 16 to 19.

In an address to Catholic bishops from England and Wales on a pilgrimage to Rome, the pope spoke of the "living faith and devotion" of Britain's Catholics.

Pope Benedict said he hoped to help "strengthen and confirm" that faith during his trip, Desforges told AFP.

Pope John Paul II was the last pontiff to visit Britain, in 1982, and was received at Buckingham Palace by Queen Elizabeth II, who is the titular head of the Church of England. He was the first pope to make the trip for 450 years.

Cardinal Sean Brady, the primate of all Ireland and archbishop of Armagh, welcomed the "wonderful news" of the visit.

"I wish to convey my best wishes to the bishops, priests and lay faithful of England and Wales on the wonderful news announced today concerning the forthcoming visit of Pope Benedict to our nearest neighbours," he said.

"I offer my blessings and good wishes to the Catholic community in their preparations for the pope's visit and for the beatification of the Venerable John Henry Newman."

Reports suggest the pope will preside over the beatification of Newman, the 19th-century theologian and former Anglican who converted to Catholicism, during his visit.