Controversial gay rights activist Peter Tatchell has accused the Vatican of “shameful, dishonourable betrayal” after it decided to move the body of Britain’s most famous Catholic convert.

Cardinal Newman, who died in 1890, was buried alongside his close friend Ambrose St John.

There has been much speculation about the nature of the relationship between the two priests.

The Catholic Church claims the move is in preparation for Newman’s beatification, the third stage of recognition of sainthood.

His remains will be moved to a sarcophagus in Birmingham Oratory.

Peter Tatchell told The Independent:

“The Vatican’s decision to move Cardinal Newman’s body from its resting place is an act of grave robbery and religious desecration.

“It violates Newman’s repeated wish to be buried for eternity with his life-long partner Ambrose St John.

“They have been together for more than 100 years and the Vatican wants to disturb that peace to cover up the fact that Cardinal Newman loved a man.

“It’s shameful, dishonourable betrayal of Newman by the gay-hating Catholic Church.”

Writing at the time of St John’s death in 1875, Newman said:

“I have ever thought no bereavement was equal to that of a husband’s or a wife’s, but I feel it difficult to believe that any can be greater, or any one’s sorrow greater, than mine.”

Though Cardinal Newman was a lifelong celibate, and many scholars argue that his love for his fellow priest was merely Platonic, this move by the Catholic Church has fuelled speculation that they are embarrassed by the close nature of the friendship between the two men.

Cardinal Newman has to have one more miracle performed in his name before he can become a saint.

He was a pillar of the Oxford Movement, which tried to bring the Anglican church back to its Roman Catholic roots. After this failed he converted to Roman Catholicism.

Pope Benedict XVI was presented with pictures of Cardinal Newman during a private meeting with the Blair family in 2007.

Cherie Blair is reported to have said: “I believe you are very familiar with him and he is on the journey to sainthood.”

The Pontiff responded, “Yes, yes, although it is taking some time – miracles are hard to come by in Britain.”

Tony Blair converted to Catholicism in December last year, after he left office as Prime Minister.