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Tony Blair talks of his religious experiences at prayer breakfast

Tony Grew February 6, 2009

When Alastair Campbell, Director of Communications at Number 10, was asked about Tony Blair’s religious faith, he famously replied, “We don’t do God.”

How times change.

The former Prime Minister spoke to a crowd of several thousand people gathered for the National Prayer Breakfast at a Washington DC hotel yesterday morning.

Members of the Senate and House, 12 foreign leaders and President Obama were also there.

“The particular faith that motivates each of us can promote a greater good for all of us,” President Obama said.

“Instead of driving us apart, our varied beliefs can bring us together to feed the hungry and comfort the afflicted; to make peace where there is strife and rebuild what has broken; to lift up those who have fallen on hard times.”

The event has taken place since 1953 and every US president since Dwight D Eisenhower has participated in the breakfast.

Mr Blair, who left office in June 2007, considered the importance of relgious faith in his life and mentioned God 31 times.

He converted to Catholicism just months after leaving Downing St.

“I remember my first spiritual awakening,” he said.

“I was ten years old. That day my father – at the young age of 40 – had suffered a serious stroke. His life hung in the balance.

“My mother, to keep some sense of normality in the crisis, sent me to school. My teacher knelt and prayed with me.

“Now my father was a militant atheist. Before we prayed, I thought I should confess this. “I’m afraid my father doesn’t believe in God”. I said. “That doesn’t matter” my teacher replied “God believes in him. He loves him without demanding or needing love in return.'”

While no British Prime Minister passed more legislation in support of LGBT people, Mr Blair’s relationship with the gay community was seriously damaged following his appointment of the devoutly Catholic Ruth Kelly to the post of Minister for Equality in 2006.

Ms Kelly, a member of Opus Dei, had never voted in favour of gay rights despite her role holding responsibility for LGBT issues.

When Mr Blair was tempted to side with Ms Kelly and Roman Catholic adoption agencies over an exemption to the sexual orientation regulations, Peter Hain and Alan Johnson threatened to quit the cabinet.

His December 2007 conversion came after years of speculation that Mr Blair, whose wife Cherie and four children are Catholic, would convert from Anglicanism after he left office.

One of his final acts as Prime Minister was to visit Pope Benedict – his third Vatican trip in four years.

During his administration civil partnerships were created, the age of consent was equalised, gay people were allowed to serve in the British Armed Forces and the Gender Recognition Act was passed.

Mr Blair now heads the The Tony Blair Faith Foundation.

It aims to “promote respect and understanding about the world’s major religions and show how faith is a powerful force for good in the modern world.”

In his speech in Washinton yesterday, Mr Blair said he is inspired by the Middle East, where he is also acting as a peace envoy for the ‘quartet,’ namely the US, UN, EU and Russia.

He defended the role religion plays in the world.

“Today, religion is under attack from without and from within,” he said.

“From within, it is corroded by extremists who use their faith as a means of excluding the other. I am what I am in opposition to you. If you do not believe as I believe, you are a lesser human being.

“From without, religious faith is assailed by an increasingly aggressive secularism, which derides faith as contrary to reason and defines faith by conflict. Thus do the extreme believers and the aggressive non-believers come together in unholy alliance.”

President Obama, who took office last month, has been criticised by American civil rights groups after the formation of a new White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighbourhood Partnerships.

The White House said the Office will work closely with the President’s Cabinet Secretaries and each of the eleven agency offices for faith-based and neighbourhood partnerships.

“President Obama has put the cart before the horse,” said Christopher Anders, the American Civil Liberties Union’s Senior Legislative Counsel.

“He is expanding the Bush administration’s faith-based initiative without putting the most important safeguards in place.

“The President has created a more powerful office with a greater ability to shovel federal taxpayer dollars to religious groups, but civil rights protections are being deferred for later study and decisions.

“With the President likely to soon have additional hundreds of billions of economic stimulus dollars at his disposal, he should have abolished the discriminatory rules of his predecessor before greasing the way for more federal funds going to religious groups.”

More: Americas

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