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e freedom worth fighting for

Adecade ago i t would have been unthinkable for a Labour leader to make the kind of speech Ed Miliband gave to an Evangelical audience last Sunday. Back then, politicians cravenly followed the dictum of Tony Blair’s PR guru Alastair Campbell and did not “do God”.

But this week Mr Miliband told those gathered at Praise House in south London that, if elected Prime Minister, he would consider new measures to protect Christians’ right to express their beliefs in the workplace. Not only that: he said a Labour government would work closely with church schools and combat local authority hostility towards religious groups running community projects.

He was speaking days after David Cameron also sought to woo the faithful, appearing at the Festival of Life, a Christian event in London Docklands. In the past year, the Conservative leader hasn’t missed an opportunity to praise the Church’s role in public life. He has said he is “evangelical” about his faith and urged believers to be more confident about expressing their beliefs in public. What accounts for this remarkable shift in tone in a country where, according to recent studies, Christianity is rapidly declining?

It’s worth noting that both leaders were addressing audiences largely drawn from black-majority churches, one of the few Christian groups in Britain that is actually growing. Many of these churches play a fundamental role in inner-city communities and are helping to shape a new generation of leaders. Miliband and Cameron are, on one level, simply recognising their great and growing influence.

But on a deeper level, the two men are reflecting a change in public discourse about Christianity. Britons have tired of the once-dominant New Atheist shtick. Those who loudly disparage the faith are no longer guaranteed applause for their wit and “bravery”. The turning point

Christians should not have to live in fear of disciplinary proceedings for wearing crosses at work may have been Benedict XVI’s visit to Britain five years ago, which followed an absurdly vitriolic campaign by some of our best-known pundits, entertainers and human rights activists. The pope calmly exposed New Atheism for what it was: a destructive and intellectually undistinguished social phenomenon. As Benedict XVI prepared to leave the country, Cameron said he had made Britain “sit up and think”. It turned out he was right.

It is no longer enough for politicians to offer bromides about the vital role of churches in community life. They recognise now that Christians are helping to find brilliant (and cost-effective) solutions to the social problems that are such a headache in government. Therefore they want to encourage this Christian activism as much as possible. Miliband and Cameron couldn’t realise their ambitious social visions without the participation of the faithful – and they know it.

How should Christians react to this dramatic change in climate? We should launch a twofold fight for religious freedom: at home and, most importantly, abroad. We should support efforts to clarify the law so that believers are not punished for simple, compassionate, everyday expressions of faith. Christians should not have to live in fear of disciplinary proceedings for wearing crosses at work or offering to pray for colleagues.

But the far greater fight is for the liberty of religious minorities worldwide. Christians, as we know, are by far the greatest victims of persecution in our times. We must let politicians of all hues know that this matters intensely to us and that, if elected, we expect them to fight for downtrodden believers the world over.

There is still time to make our concerns known before May 7. Let’s seize every chance we have to do so.

A welcome departure

When Pope Francis decides to remove a bishop, he does so unceremoniously. The “resignation” of Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St Joseph was accepted by the Holy Father on Tuesday and announced in a brief Vatican bulletin. Bishop Finn departs in accordance with Canon 401.2, which applies to bishops who cannot fulfill their duties because of poor health or “other grave reasons”.

In this case the reason is indeed grave. In 2012 Bishop Finn was convicted by a judge of failing to report suspicion of child endangerment – in particular, of covering up for a priest who possessed child pornography. Yet he did not resign until this week. With such a conviction, Bishop Finn would be banned from running a Sunday school in his own diocese; his clinging on to office was a scandal. Pope Francis has now brought that scandal to an end.

However, although the Pope has acted swiftly to remove unsuitable bishops, a wider problem remains. Priests accused of sexual misconduct remain in post in various countries. Significantly, members of the Pope’s own child abuse commission are unhappy at the continued promotion of bishops who face questions about their handling of abuse cases. Marie Collins, one such member, this week complained that the Vatican is not adequately funding the commission. We are glad to see Bishop Finn depart; but it is still not clear that the Church is fully committed to its urgent mission of purification.


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