Tony Blair: Messenger from God?

As prime minister, he famously "didn't do God" but, having left office, Tony Blair is travelling the world to launch his new Faith Foundation. The BBC has had exclusive access to the foundation's early work.

On a cold winter's day at Yale University in Connecticut, Tony Blair is preparing for a new challenge - teaching.

His new inter-faith foundation has linked with Yale and launched a new course, on Faith and Globalisation.

As we walk to the seminar, surrounded by photographers and tight security, the former prime minister tells me why he has entered the classroom:

"If globalisation is a force pushing people together, does religion become a force pulling people apart?

"In the light of what's going on in the world, they are important themes to explore."

In front of 25 handpicked students from diverse religious backgrounds, Mr Blair leads discussions about the complex dilemmas politicians face when taking account of religious belief.

He gives examples of controversial incidents during his premiership - including debates over euthanasia, gay adoption and abortion.

The questions from the students are tough, but Mr Blair clearly relishes the open debate - free of a party line which must be defended.

At one point, he says with a laugh: "I think I kind of got my whole life the wrong way round. I should have started with the conceptual debate first and then gone on to the practice."

The decision by one of the world's leading universities to partner with the Tony Blair Faith Foundation is something of a coup as it begins its work.

The academic course is just one part of the planned work of the Foundation.

It has other educational programmes planned, including the production of impartial religious education materials, and the development of a new inter-faith centre in London.

What makes the foundation's work distinctive is its emphasis on uniting people of different religious traditions in practical action - with the eradication of malaria a key priority.


Young people are being recruited to work for the foundation as "Faiths Act Fellows", promoting the fight against malaria across religious divides.

So what has motivated Mr Blair to devote much of his time to a cause that could hardly be described as fashionable?

"I'm really and always have been in a way more interested in religion than politics," he tells me.

The concept of an inter-faith foundation pre-dates him becoming leader of the Labour party or prime minister, he says.

And the launch of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation is a response to him being "really, really committed to finding a way of making religious faith relevant to the modern world".

Mr Blair says the secular world needs to understand religion, and religions need to understand each other.

"I believe this whole issue to do with interfaith is absolutely where the 21st century needs to be in social and cultural terms," he says.

"So I've got a very clear strategic sense of it as well. A powerful sense of mission on it. Every bit as powerful as I felt in politics."

Some are unconvinced by this transformation from politician to religious campaigner.

Huda Jawad, director of the Muslim charity Forward Thinking, says she has doubts about levels of support from Muslims, given Tony Blair's foreign policy record while prime minister.

She says that it is difficult to reconcile Blair the prime minister and Blair the leader of a faith foundation.

But Mr Blair says that some of the best response to the foundation has been from the Islamic world.

And he is keen to point out to his critics that whatever early problems he may encounter, this is not a short-term project.

"This is not for me a 'this year and next year' project. This is a rest of my life project. So over time people will be able to see you in a different light," he says.

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