Religious in historic march on Parliament

 Many religious communities stood virtually deserted yesterday as some 1,000 religious women and men from all over Britain marched to Westminster Hall to lobby their MPs on behalf of CAFOD's Make Poverty History campaign. There were many familiar faces among MPs: Clare Short, John Battle, Glenda Jackson, Malcolm Rifkind and Dennis Skinner came together with newly-elected members fresh from the hustings and listened as religious young and old thronged into the hall to ask tough questions about trade, aid and debt relief. The religious present represented a huge wealth of pastoral experience at home and abroad, and have access to widespread networks of voters in this country through their work in parishes, education, healthcare and social welfare, so MPs listened with care as the case for justice was put from a Christian perspective. Old jokes about rivalries and past divisions were forgotten as Jesuits stood with Dominicans, Anglican religious with Catholics, united in the one aim of bringing pressure to bear on our political leaders to end the scandal of poverty in Africa. At times it felt rather like a version of 'This Is Your Life', as many religious caught up with old friends whom they hadn't seen for years. The lobby was the brainchild of Sister Pat Robb of the Congregation of Jesus, who spent 14 years in the refugee camps of Africa. A passionate campaigner against the developed world's selfish use of limited natural resources and labour to maintain an unsustainable lifestyle, she refuses in the name of the Gospel to accept a world in which a woman dies in childbirth every minute, 150 million children are malnourished while 1.1 billion people have no safe water. These are pro-life and religious as well as political issues. The vows of poverty, chastity and obedience draw religious to live a life consistent with the Gospel challenge to see Christ in the poor and come to His aid. With the church providing 40% of healthcare in some developing countries, many of the religious campaigners have first-hand experience of working with Aids victims, the homeless, families in crisis and drug addicts, in inner cities and slums around the world. Yesterday's lobby is as natural a part of their religious consecration as prayer itself. The day ended with a service of prayer in St Margaret's Westminster, the church of the House of Commons, through the hospitality of the Anglican church. With his reminder of the recent Catholic-Anglican joint statement about the place of the Virgin Mary in the Christian tradition, Canon Nicholas Sagovsky of Westminster Abbey opened the liturgy to enthusiastic applause as he spoke of Anglicans and Catholics coming together to make real the Magnificat's proclamation of the reign of God where structures of power would be reversed and the poor given their rightful heritage as God's children. Fr Timothy Radcliffe, former Master of the Dominicans, preached about the need to make the Gospel demand for justice and human dignity felt in the corridors of power, where life-enhancing or life-threatening decisions are made which affect millions of people across the world. CAFOD masterminded the lobby, providing highly professional organization and support. They and the House of Commons can have been left in no doubt that, when it comes to campaigning for the rights of the poor, the religious of Britain remain a force to be reckoned with.

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