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Harper spokesman says prime minister did not pocket communion wafer

OTTAWA - Prime Minister Stephen Harper consumed a communion wafer given him by a Roman Catholic priest last week and did not put it in his pocket as critics allege, says a spokesman.

OTTAWA - Prime Minister Stephen Harper consumed a communion wafer given him by a Roman Catholic priest last week and did not put it in his pocket as critics allege, says a spokesman.

"At the end of the service, he was offered communion. He accepted communion and he consumed it," Dimitri Soudas said Wednesday from L'Aquila, Italy, where Harper was attending a G8 meeting.

The prime minister has come under fire from a senior priest in New Brunswick, who is demanding an explanation about what happened to the wafer, considered sacred by the church and supposed to be swallowed.

Harper accepted the wafer at the Roman Catholic funeral last Friday of former governor general Romeo LeBlanc in Memramcook, N.B.

Msgr. Brian Henneberry, vicar general and chancellor in the Diocese of Saint John in New Brunswick, said it was unclear what happened to the wafer - and that it would be scandalous if the prime minister put it in his pocket.

A video posted on YouTube shows Harper taking the host, but does not show him swallowing it afterward. Soudas said he consumed the wafer "immediately" after taking it.

Harper is a Protestant and would not normally receive Roman Catholic communion, though it was unclear whether it could be appropriate on special occasions.

If Harper accepted the host but did not consume it "it's worse than a faux pas, it's a scandal from the Catholic point of view," Henneberry told the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal.

The YouTube video shows Harper reaching out with his right hand and accepting the wafer from a priest. Harper does not consume the wafer before the camera cuts away several seconds later.

Henneberry also questioned whether Harper, a non-Catholic, should even have accepted the wafer, known as a host.

"If the prime minister is not a Catholic, he should not have been receiving communion and if he comes up it places the priest in an awkward position, especially at a national funeral because everyone is watching," Henneberry said.

But another Roman Catholic priest, Rev. Arthur Bourgeois, who delivered the homily at the funeral, did not have a problem with the prime minister accepting the host.

"Usually, to partake in holy communion in the Catholic Church, you have to be a member of it. But if you're not, exceptionally sometimes at major occasions (it is different)," Bourgeois told the newspaper.

Soudas defended Harper's acceptance of the communion wafer: "Who is he to judge a priest offering him communion?"

A receptionist with the Diocese of Saint John said Wednesday no one would be commenting further on the issue, including Bishop Robert Harris.

Harper is spending five days in Italy and has an audience Saturday with Pope Benedict, head of the Roman Catholic church.