The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, attacked the media yesterday for "sniggering" at Tony Blair's strongly held religious beliefs.
In his Christmas sermon at Canterbury Cathedral, Dr Williams, who has been critical of Mr Blair's stance on Iraq, sprang to the Prime Minister's defence over his Christian Socialist views.
The Archbishop said the French government's proposal to ban Muslim headscarves in schools suggested there was still a nervousness about letting commitment show its face in public. "And in case we think the whole debate is just a French problem," he said, "we should recognise just a little of the same unease in the nervous sniggering about the Prime Minister's religious faith which ripples over the surface of the media from time to time."
Mr Blair declared himself a Christian Socialist before he became Labour leader in 1994, and his beliefs have influenced his political views, notably his determination that people should accept "responsibilities" to society in return for their "rights".
The Prime Minister said in 1993 that he "can't stand politicians who go on about religion". Although he has been accused by some commentators of parading his religious views, he has often refused to talk about them. "We don't do God," Alastair Campbell, his former communications director, told one interviewer earlier this year.
Mr Blair has been criticised for receiving the sacrament at a Catholic Church even though he is not a Catholic - unlike his wife Cherie. Yesterday, the couple attended morning mass near Chequers.
In his address, Dr Williams said: "It isn't all that surprising if a secular environment looks at religion not only with suspicion or incomprehension but with fear. Discomfort about religion or about a particular religion may be the response of an educated liberal or, at the opposite extreme, the unthinking violence of an anti-Semite; it isn't easy to face the fact that sometimes the effects are similar for the believer."
Urging Christians, Jews and Muslims to "stand with each other", the Archbishop said: "Historically, the answer is, alas, that religious faith has too often been the language of the powerful, the excuse for oppression, the alibi for atrocity. It has appeared as itself intolerant of difference (hence the legacy of anti-Semitism), as a campaigning, aggressive force for uniformity, as a self-defensive and often corrupt set of institutions indifferent to basic human welfare."
He added: "That's a legacy that dies hard, however much we might want to protest that it is far from the whole picture. And it's given new life by the threat of terror carried out in the name of a religion - even when representatives of that religion at every level roundly condemn such action as incompatible with faith."
Dr Williams said the Christian faith had to show it was "on the side of humanity".
* The Archbishop of York used his Christmas sermon to call on the Church to live "together with and in difference" with one another. Dr David Hope said many would have been amazed by the recent "fuss" - which almost split the Anglican Church - over the consecration of a practising homosexual as a bishop in the US. In another Christmas sermon, the Right Rev Iain Torrance, head of the Church of Scotland, accused the kirk of reinforcing hatred of gay people and urged the country to shake off its homophobia.
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