More than 7,000 people have signed a petition against the Pope’s state-funded visit to the UK.

The petition was set up two days ago by the National Secular Society, which estimates the Pontiff’s four-day visit in September will cost the UK £20 million.

Negotiations on who will pay for the visit are said to be ongoing, although taxpayers are likely to foot the bill for the Pope’s security costs.

The Pope announced the date of his visit this week. He also launched an unprecedented attack on a government attempt to make churches comply with gay equality legislation, saying it “violates the natural law”.

Equality minister Harriet Harman subsequently said she would not force through amendments on who churches can employ after they were defeated by Lords last week.

The National Secular Society argues that taxpayers must not foot the bill for the visit when the Pope is likely to “attack equal rights and promote discrimination”.

Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said: “Most British people will not welcome a meddlesome pontiff who opposes our equality laws.

“They will especially resent the fact that the UK government is asking taxpayers to cough up around £20 million to finance his visit. This money would be far better spent on schools and hospitals.”

Labour MEP Stephen Hughes said: “As a Catholic, I am appalled by the attitude of the Pope. Religious leaders should be trying to eradicate inequality, not perpetuate it.”

Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, told PinkNews.co.uk he expected to see 10,000 signatures on the petition by the end of this week.

He said: : “I don’t think the government and the church have realised the level of anger from the public – not just over the Equality Bill but also the child abuse scandal. There has been no apology to victims, no compensation.

“And the Catholics in the pews just don’t abide by what the Pope says. They are appalled at the aggressiveness of the church towards homosexuality and also over the church’s pronouncements on condom use against AIDS in Africa.

“This is a PR disaster for the Pope, and he specialises in them. His reactionary nature drives people away.”