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Howard in pre-election warning to church leaders

In a pre-emptive strike during an election year in which social issues are expected to dominate, Prime Minister John Howard is warning church leaders not to favour political parties.

"I think church leaders should speak out on moral issues but there is a problem with that justification being actively translated into sounding very partisan," he said, in an interview with The Advertiser in Adelaide.

"I don't deny the right of any church leader to talk about anything," he said. "But I think, from the point of view of the unity of the church, it stresses and strains when the only time they hear from their leaders is when they are talking about issues that are bound to divide their congregations."

Mr Howard singled out an attack by Anglican Primate of Australia Peter Carnley after the Bali bomb blast, which included suggestions the bombers believed Australia was too close to the US.

Some church leaders also mounted a campaign just before the Iraq war last year, trying to convince Mr Howard to find a way to end the crisis peacefully.

Mr Howard, an Anglican, said the churches' "primary responsibility is spiritual leadership", which he respected and supported.

In a veiled reference to sexual abuse scandals in churches, Mr Howard said he deplored the pummelling churches had received because of the "abhorrent" behaviour of a small number of people.

Stressing he supported churches' social role, Mr Howard said many of their achievements in helping people tended not to attract the attention they should.

Mr Howard said the church's role was "still overwhelmingly benign" and "a very positive one".

While the church's institutional influence had diminished, Mr Howard said that "doesn't mean to say that there isn't a very strong spiritual hunger" in the Australian community.

Asked whether he worried about the loss of a sense of community, Mr Howard said: "Yes, of course I do.

"Our society is less cohesive, certainly in many respects, than it used to be, because you don't have the same broad consensus in the community about what is regarded as the kind of behaviour that keeps the community together.

"We are just a more individualistic and diverse community now. That's change and you just have to accommodate it."

Church leaders were divided over Mr Downer's attack, with Anglican Archbishop of Sydney Peter Jensen labelling his criticism "amateurish" and "under-researched".

But Cardinal George Pell said Mr Downer's speech was "excellent" and "worth studying" because church leaders could get things wrong occasionally.

Keep quiet on politics (The Advertiser 16/2/04)

'Politics can damage churches' claim (Daily Telegraph/ 16/2/04)
Howard warns church leaders (Herald-Sun 16/2/04)
Pell says Downer had a point (CathNews 29/8/03)
Foreign Minister | At the Sir Thomas Playford Annual Lecture (text of speech delivered 27/8/03)
Prime Minister's Website

16 Feb 2004