Gay rights activists hit back yesterday after a Catholic bishop challenged the homosexual community's attendance at the annual Holocaust memorial service.

The Rt Rev Joseph Devine, Bishop of Motherwell and president of the Catholic Education Commission, said in a lecture that the gay lobby went to the memorial to present the "image of a group of people under persecution".

He also pointed out that actor Sir Ian McKellen was given a New Year's honour for services to gay rights, whereas Oscar Wilde was locked up only a century ago for homosexual acts.

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In the fourth of the Gonzaga Lectures held at St Aloysius' College in Glasgow, Bishop Devine spoke of "a giant conspiracy" advancing the cause of secularism.

He said secularism was more dangerous than sectarianism because it was more insidious.

Bishop Devine said: "The homosexual lobby has been extremely effective in aligning itself with minority groups. It is ever-present at the service each year for the Holocaust memorial, as if to create for themselves the image of a group of people under persecution. We neglect the gay movement at our peril.

"Issues around sexuality are powerful factors in shaping public policy. I want to ask you if you are able to see the giant conspiracy that's taking place before our eyes, even if we didn't see it at the time? I take it you're beginning to see that there is a huge and well-orchestrated conspiracy taking place which the Catholic community completely missed.

"It's a very small group of people, but very active and organised and extremely indulgent. The opposition know exactly what they're doing. We don't."

After Bishop Devine's lecture on Tuesday night, titled Sectarianism and Secularism: Bugbears for the Catholic Church in Scotland, one audience member asked how Catholic parents should "come to terms with a child's mission to become homosexual". He replied: "This must be a nightmare moment for any parent. There are many days when I'm glad to not be a parent. I would try to handle it with a degree of compassion, but would not tolerate that behaviour. I would not condemn, but I would not tolerate it."

Bishop Devine clashed repeatedly with the previous Scottish Executive and during his lecture cited the battles over Clause 28, legalising civil partnerships and same-sex adoption.

He concluded his lecture stating: "Like Mel Gibson, who said, I'm going to pick a fight', so am I."

Calum Irving, director of the gay rights group Stonewall Scotland, said yesterday that lesbian and gay people were among groups targeted by the Nazis for extermination - together with Jews, communists and gypsies.

He said: "It is a shameful disgrace anyone should try to deny that, especially a man supposedly of the Christian faith. A lot of his remarks are unchristian and out of step with a great swathe of Christian people throughout Scotland. As for Oscar Wilde - is he saying gay people should be thrown in jail now as they were a century ago?"

According to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, approximately 100,000 men were arrested as homosexuals by the Third Reich between 1933 and 1945.

Estimates of the number of homosexuals who died in internment camps range upwards from 10,000. Nazi doctors also experimented with medical procedures, including castration and hormone injections, in bogus efforts to "cure" homosexuals.

A Catholic Church spokesman said: "The Bishop was accusing the gays of today of trying to adopt the mantle of victimhood of those who were persecuted by the Nazis."

Bishop Devine could not be contacted for comment.