THE experience of bigotry among Catholics in Scotland has been compared to the plight of black citizens in 1950s and 60s America by a senior voice of the Church.

In the same way black people were urged to "whiten their complexions" during the US civil rights turmoil half a century ago, Catholics in Scotland are in danger of being forced to turn their backs on faith schooling and shun public statements about their religion, it has been claimed.

The comparison has been made by the Catholic Church's spokesman Peter Kearney, who also believes Scotland must confront sectarianism in the same way it deals with domestic violence – and not blame the victim.

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In a letter in today's Herald, he also claims the main "proponents of anti-Catholic intolerance" were the champions of secularism, rather than from the "militantly Protestant quarters" of the early-1980s, adding that bigotry was something learned in the home and the streets and not a product of the education system.

His calls come after the Scottish Government's anti-bigotry czar, Dr Duncan Morrow, said the problem of sectarianism in Scotland was not simply "a ned issue", and added that political, social, historic and cultural factors were as much a part of bigotry as religious faith.

Claiming it was a Scotland-wide issue not confined to football, Dr Morrow also said there were frequent claims of "embedded anti-Catholicism that isn't going away in Scotland", while also warning against a culture of victimhood and championing the idea of shared campuses for schools.

Mr Kearney, citing Crown Office statistics showing Catholics are more likely to be offended against, said: "I am certain that many voices will join this debate, bringing with them a blame-the-victim mindset.

"In much the same way as America's black citizens in an earlier era were urged to straighten their hair and whiten their complexions in order to 'minimise' differences with the white majority, many will surely urge Scottish Catholics to stop sending their children to Catholic schools or making public or overt declarations of faith at any time.

"Scandalously, open and wide debate on the matter in modern Scotland is neither encouraged nor facilitated.

"Scotland has first and foremost a problem with anti-Catholicism. This must be recognised and accepted before progress can be made.

"To wilfully deploy blanket terminology like 'sectarianism' in the face of compelling evidence attesting to the particulars of certain animosities is to perpetuate the problem.

"We could reasonably start by following the lead taken by campaigners against domestic violence. Although this behaviour manifests itself in a variety of ways, for the most part it comprises male violence directed at women.

"Campaigners and politicians have rightly recognised this, allowing publicity material like posters and advertising to portray women as the primary victims."

Nil By Mouth, Scotland's leading anti-sectarian charity, said Dr Morrow's comments were evidence that "the days of sweeping this issue under the carpet are over, with the evidence showing it goes well beyond the touchlines and terraces".

The group's campaign director, Dave Scott, said that, as well as kickstarting a nationwide debate on the definition of sectarianism, Nil By Mouth hoped Dr Morrow's expert group will argue for anti-bigotry policies to be enshrined in the workplace, while also welcoming shared campuses and more support for inter-denominational work in schools.

However, Mr Scott added: "Too many individuals and groups define sectarianism in their own terms, to suit their own narrow agendas. Sectarianism in 21st-century Scotland is a confusion of religion, politics, cultural identity and ignorance.

"Put simply, it is 'fear of difference' and we need to explore every avenue open to us in order to understand these fears and break this depressing cycle of bigotry."

Reverend Sally Foster-Fulton, convener of the Church of Scotland's Church and Society Council, said: "Differences are no longer predominantly religious, but embedded in parts of Scottish culture. Words and legislation can both help to tackle the problem of sectarianism, but they won't solve what is deeply a cultural issue.

"The words and actions of those trapped by their sectarianism will only be changed when they change how they see themselves and their place in the world."