Blair declares his faith: I want to awaken world's conscience

Tony Blair has called for a drive among people of all faiths to "awaken the world's conscience" over the failure to tackle poverty, illiteracy and poor health in the developing world.

Delivering his first major speech on religion at Westminster Cathedral, the former prime minister, who converted to Catholicism last year, argued that religions of all kinds should be rescued from extremism and irrelevance to help meet a "profound yearning within the human spirit" at a time of unprecedented global turbulence.

He set out plans for the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, which is designed to forge closer ties between young people of all major religions, as well as promoting the importance of faith in general.

Its first aim, he said, would be to champion the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the targets set by the United Nations for improve conditions in the developing world by 2015. They include halving extreme poverty, providing universal primary education and halting the spread of HIV/Aids.

He said the MDGs were a "litmus test of the world's values" and were "stark in their ambition and necessity". Mr Blair warned: "We are falling short as a world in meeting them. It would be a great example of faith in action to try to bridge the gap and awaken the world's conscience."

He added that the foundation would focus on the "Abrahamic faiths" of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, as well as Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism, and that it would help people of those faiths "discover what they share" and "help partner those within any of the faiths who stand up for peaceful co-existence and reject the extremist and divisive notion that faiths are in fundamental struggle against each other".

Mr Blair also admitted he had under-estimated the extent of "seismic shift" globally from West to East while he was Prime Minister. He said: "The centre of gravity, economically and politically, is shifting east and it is shifting fast.

"China and India together will industrialise the bulk of their populations, presently employed in subsistence agriculture, probably within two decades."

He argued that the "strong historical and cultural influence" of religion in both East and West could help both hemispheres unite around "common values" rather than undergo "a battle for domination".

About 1,600 people obtained free tickets to hear the address by Mr Blair, who has divided his time between acting as a Middle East envoy, pursuing business interests and developing his plans for the Foundation. He has also accepted a teaching post on the subject of faith and globalisation at Yale University.

Mr Blair said he was forced to play down the importance of his faith while in Downing Street because of scepticism in Britain about politicians who were actively religious.

He said they could be considered "weird" people who engaged in "some slightly cultish interaction" with their religion, wanted to impose their faith on others and were pretending to be better than the next person.

"[There is an assumption] that you are somehow messianically trying to co-opt God to bestow a divine legitimacy on your politics."

He said: "Even 10 years ago, religion was still being written off as a force in the world ... But, in fact, at no time since the Enlightenment has religion ever gone away. It has always been at the very core of life for millions of people."

A major police operation was mounted as anti-war protesters holding placards gathered outside the cathedral during his speech.