Tony Blair appealed for religious faith to be rescued from extremism and put at the centre of solving the world's problems, during a wide-ranging speech at Westminster Cathedral last night. Addressing a 1,600 strong audience, in his first major speech since stepping down as Prime Minister, he said: "For religion to be a force for good, it must be rescued not simply from extremism, faith as a means of exclusion; but also from irrelevance, an interesting part of our history but not of our future." Too many people saw religious faith as stark dogmatism and empty ritual, he added. "Faith is reduced to a system of strange convictions and actions that, to some, can appear far removed from the necessities and anxieties of ordinary life," Blair said. "It is this face that gives militant secularism an easy target." Mr Blair said people must accept that faith is not in decline and the world has become more economically, politically and ideologically independent. "The divide, then, is between those who see this as positive, the opening up offering opportunity, and those who see it as threatening and wish to close it back down," he said. He said since leaving office he realised that the "centre of gravity, economically and politically is shifting east". China and India are "of vital strategic importance" he said. "I believe, in this era of rapid globalisation, where power is shifting away from its traditional centre in the West, the world will be immeasurably poorer, more dangerous, more fragile and above all, more aimless - I mean without the necessary sense of purpose to help guide its journey - if it is without a strong spiritual dimension." Next month, Blair will be launching the Tony Blair Faith Foundation which aims to bring people of different faiths together in pursuit of the UN's Millennium Development Goals, which include the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, promoting gender equality and combating diseases such as malaria and AIDS.. These goals are "the litmus test" of the world's values and that, while faith groups do great individual work in this area, they could do even more, if helped to work better and more closely together, he said. "The Millennium Development Goals are stark in their ambition and necessity. 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." The foundation will work with faith leaders from the world's major religions and with grassroots organisations, finding the best examples on the ground where faith is used as a progressive force and providing the backing of the Foundation and its partners to give this real global impact, Blair explained. At the end of the talk, broadcaster Ed Sturton chaired a short question and answer session with the audience. When asked whether he had any regrets about his actions in the light of having become a Catholic, Blair responded: "There is nothing I look back on now and say that as a result of my religious journey I would have done things very differently but that is expressly not to say that I got everything right." When asked whether he might be taking a stand on life issues, Blair said he preferred to focus on the 'bigger picture' rather than get involved in a single issue such as the Embryology Bill. Before the lecture began, Pax Christi held a silent prayer vigil in the Piazza outside the Cathedral to draw attention to Mr Blair's involvement in the Iraq war and ongoing occupation. It said it was also protesting against Blair's role in the government's decision to abandon promises made in the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and replace its Trident nuclear missiles. There were other aspects of his premiership that have "created global polarity rather than global solidarity," a Pax Christi spokesperson said. Hundreds of Stop the War protesters also gathered in front of the Cathedral as the audience came in through a strict security cordon. Once the speech got underway the crowd, which included several choirs, orchestras, drummers and whistleblowers, erupted in an hour-long 'wall of sound' that echoed throughout the Cathedral for the duration of the speeches. Demonstrators carried posters with Biblical quotations opposing war, and quotes from Pope John Paul II when he was appealing for Blair and Bush not to attack Iraq in 2005. Among the protesters was Brian Eno, formerly of Roxy Music. He said he wanted Blair to realise people had not forgotten about the Iraq war. "It's sincredibly arrogant for him to talk about faith and globalisation when he has exarcebated the problems of both of them". Another campaigner, Iraq hostage Norman Kember, said: "What happened to me was a minor blip in my life compared to the continuing plight of Iraq and the way ordinary Iraqi citizens have suffered so much. I feel what he did was unChristian and am concerned that he is now talking in one of the largest churches in England." Christian peace campaigner Anna Davies, from Maidstone in Kent said: "It is such a shame that these young idealistic people are standing out here protesting with such energy and they feel alianated from our Church which they see as supporting someone who started an unjust war. There is a real need for dialogue here." The full text and video of Tony Blair's lecture are available at www.rcdow.org.uk/lectures The text of all the Cardinal's lectures will also be published in a book later this year. A video of the demonstration can be seen at: http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=JA_YvdXV3uc The Stop the War report of the protest is at: http://tinyurl.com/4r3ogm
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