BELFAST June 20, 2013 (LifeSiteNews.com) – President Barack Obama is under fire this week after a speech he gave in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in which he labeled Catholic education “divisive" and likened them to segregated schools in the Deep South.

Obama’s comments have not only angered Catholics in Northern Ireland, but have put him at odds with the Vatican’s highest authorities in what remains an extremely complex and sensitive internal political dispute.

In comments that the Scottish Catholic Observer called “alarming” and “unfounded,” Obama implied that tensions between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland would be eliminated if there were no separation between Catholic and Protestant schools.

“Issues like segregated schools and housing, lack of jobs and opportunity — symbols of history that are a source of pride for some and pain for others — these are not tangential to peace; they’re essential to it,” Obama said.

Speaking to an audience of about 2,000 youth at a town hall meeting in Belfast on Monday, Obama said, “If towns remain divided — if Catholics have their schools and buildings, and Protestants have theirs — if we can’t see ourselves in one another, if fear or resentment are allowed to harden, that encourages division. It discourages cooperation.”

Liam Gibson, Northern Ireland officer for the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, told LifeSiteNews.com that the president’s comments were offensive not only to Catholics, who won the right to Catholic schools only after many years of bitter political struggle, but to all those who have worked for social unity in Northern Ireland.

“Frankly as a north Belfast working class Catholic who was educated during the darkest days of the Troubles, I take what Mr. Obama said personally,” Gibson said.

“For the president of the United States to come to Northern Ireland as a guest and then to lay the blame for our past political violence on the Catholic school system is incredibly insulting. It may not have been his intention to imply that children who are educated in Catholic schools grow-up to become religious bigots but that, effectively, is what he did.”

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Gibson said the remarks “reflect a deep seated anti-Catholic prejudice” on Obama’s part, saying they were identical to the views of those who “have only the most superficial understanding of Irish history and politics but nevertheless feel qualified to use the Troubles to attack Catholic education all over the world.”

David Freddoso at the website of Conservative Intelligence Briefing wrote that Obama had stuck his foot in his mouth: “He’s just stepped into a foreign country and seized one of its political third rails. Just imagine the reaction if Obama had visited the West Bank and said something like this about Islamic education.” The topic remains extremely sensitive in Northern Ireland where some Protestant leaders have continued to call for the public defunding of Catholic schools.

Freddoso noted that despite their students generally being poorer, the Catholic schools of Northern Ireland regularly academically outperform the state-controlled Protestant schools. “As the Catholic schools pull off this feat and help Catholics attain equality in the workforce after decades of modern discrimination (not to mention what happened in previous centuries), they are in a constant fight against the very argument Obama voiced.”

Auxiliary Bishop Donal McKeown, chairman of the Northern Ireland Commission for Catholic Education, called Obama’s speech a “hackneyed” analysis of the province’s political issues, adding that they echoed a “Protestant/Catholic caricature that has actually receded into the background in Northern Ireland.”

“It is the Catholic schools in Northern Ireland that are now actually among the most racially and linguistically mixed. And, while so many young people are very open to new friendships and opportunities, it needs to be stated that it is adults outside schools who promote mistrust for their own political and personal agendas.”

“A simplistic denominational vocabulary fails to do justice to where we are,” added McKeown.

Gibson added it was significant that Obama chose to attack Catholic education near the anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement that put an end to the Troubles. “Why did he feel it was necessary to launch an attack on Catholic education? The answer is that liberal politicians believe that it is the job of the ‘Parental State’ to educate children in an entirely secular environment.”

The fact that Obama, “the most anti-family, anti-life President in U.S. history,” opposes Catholic schools “should not come as a surprise,” Gibson said. “But it ought to provide Catholic leaders with a wake-up call.”

“Governments in Europe and North America have become increasingly intolerant of Catholic values in education,” Gibson said. Starting with the imposition of secularized values-free sex-education Catholic schools are now being coerced by many Western states into providing artificial contraceptives and abortifacients to students, as well as endorsing the homosexual “lifestyle.”

Obama’s remarks “were not a plea for tolerance. They are an example of what Pope Benedict called the dictatorship of relativism.”

“If Catholic families ignore the numerous threats to their schools then they risk loosing their children to an aggressively godless and bitterly anti-Christian culture.”

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A White House spokesman has said the administration does not have “anything more to say on this beyond what the president said in his speech."

Obama’s gaffe comes on the heels of warm commendation for Catholic education as a unifying cultural force, from Archbishop Gerhard Müller, the head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In a lecture to Scottish Catholics in Glasgow the day before Obama’s speech, Abp. Müller said, “The vision and practice of Catholic Education has, throughout the Church’s history, arisen out of a coming together of the Church with various cultures.”

“In the midst of so many diverse and at times bewildering versions of educational aims and processes, the Church has a rich and vital vision to proclaim.”

Obama was in Northern Ireland this week to attend the two-day G8 Summit at the Lough Erne resort in Enneskillen.