Pope Benedict XVI warned against the “marginalisation of religion” as he delivered a keynote speech to an audience including four of Britain’s former prime ministers.
The pope told the crowd of lawmakers and senior figures in Westminster Hall – the historic heart of the Houses of Parliament – that there were also “worrying signs” that religion’s role in public life was diminishing. Having warned at the start of his state visit Thursday of “aggressive secularism” in Britain, Benedict returned to the theme Friday in the speech to a crowd including Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and John Major. “I cannot but voice my concern at the increasing marginalisation of religion, particularly of Christianity, that is taking place in some quarters, even in nations which place a great emphasis on tolerance,” the pope said. “There are those who argue that the public celebration of festivals such as Christmas should be discouraged, in the questionable belief that it might somehow offend those of other religions or none,” he said. London’s Evening Standard newspaper responded to the pope’s speech with a front page headline: “Pope’s plea to save Christmas”. The head of the Roman Catholic Church also invited the audience to “seek ways of promoting and encouraging dialogue between faith and reason at every level of national life.” In a pointed remark to the assembled lawmakers, he said there were “worrying signs of a failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square.” ‘Fight global poverty’ Benedict also took a swipe at the use of government money to bail out financial institutions, saying that it should be spent instead on fighting global poverty. “Surely the integral human development of the world’s peoples is no less important; here is an enterprise, worthy of the the world’s attention, that is truly ‘too big to fail,'” he said. Blair and his successor as prime minister Brown were seated side by side in Westminster Hall to hear the pope’s speech. Blair, who converted to Catholicism shortly after leaving office, strongly criticised Brown in his recently published memoirs, but the pair appeared to be chatting before the pope arrived. Britain’s current premier, David Cameron, could not attend the event because he was at the funeral of his father, Ian, but will meet the pope on Saturday. Itinerary completed despite terror alert The 83-year-old pontiff fulfilled the complete Friday itinerary of his visit despite the arrest of six men in connection with a terror alert linked to the visit, the first ever state visit to Britain by a pope. The run-up to the visit was clouded by the reported remarks of a top Vatican aide who likened Britain to a “Third World Country” and said an “aggressive neo-atheism has spread” in the predominantly Anglican nation.