HOW far should religious leaders go in expressing views on current affairs? The debate has been sparked again by the Archbishop of Canterbury's remarks on the Rwanda refugee scheme.

Some have accused Justin Welby of interfering in government, others have suggested that he should not have expressed the view at all on the issue. 

Of course, there is a long history of religious leaders expressing views on all manner of issues. Recently the Russian Orthodox Church has given the impression of being supportive of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

For centuries the Russian Orthodox Church worked hand in glove with the Russian state and that relationship seems to have resumed. How the views expressed by some in the Russian Orthodox Church over this issue can be reconciled with Christianity isn’t particularly clear to me. To hear religious leaders express support for war and killing in the modern era is deeply shocking.

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Sadly, throughout human history people have used religion as justification for killing others. All religions bear responsibility in this regard. If we look at Christianity, the Crusades were a prime example of religion being used to justify murder and plunder, as long as it was done to people who had different views.

The objective of the Crusades was to seize Jerusalem but one of those Crusades managed to wreck the Christian city of Constantinople instead.

The reason of course was that Constantinople believed in the wrong type of Christianity and so was apparently fair game.

In 17th century Germany, about a third of the population was killed in a vicious religious war between Christians over the question of what type of Christianity was the right one. Throughout history people have claimed that God is on their side when they waged war, but from a religious perspective, few of them, through their behaviour, can claim to have been on God's side.

Active encouragement of religious conflict has largely been confined to the past amongst mainstream religious leaders but there remains a debate as to how far religion should extend into politics.

In Northern Ireland of course religion is a strong indicator as to which party a person will vote for and in many countries there is a state religion, something that we have not had here for over 100 years.

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For many years the Catholic Church held a great deal of power in the Republic of Ireland and this is illustrated by the fate of the Mother and Child Scheme that the Irish government attempted to introduce in the early 1950s.

Hardly radical, it sought to introduce free medical care for mothers and children up to 16 years of age.

It was opposed by the doctors, mainly because of money, but it was also opposed by the Catholic Church in Ireland who saw it as an assault on the family.

But it went further than that, because not only did the Catholic Church oppose it but the minister who tried to introduce it was forced to resign. On top of that, in his resignation speech he apologised to the Catholic Church and referred to its bishops as “their Lordships”.

It gives the impression that Ireland was some kind of managed democracy in those days. It's unthinkable that such a situation would arise today.

Over the decades we have seen the retreat from active politics by religious leaders but that doesn't mean that they don't have the right to a view.

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Justin Welby is the leader of the Anglican Church and is an important religious figure for many. He is not the sort of person who tries to interfere in government but he is certainly somebody who would feel that he should express an opinion in his position as Archbishop.

Those who criticise him are saying in effect that he should not comment on anything that happens in the world of politics because religion should be kept separate from it.

Yet as a religious leader he surely has the right to raise concerns about government policy while recognising that as somebody who is not elected, he has no role in how it is implemented.

The Anglican Church is not the equivalent of the Orthodox Church in Russia where opposition to government is rarely if ever raised.

The Archbishop was right to raise his concerns about what is being proposed by the UK government. He had a perfect right to express his opinion and as a Christian he felt that he had a duty to speak out.

That's not interfering in politics, that's an expression of a view on a moral issue which surely he has a perfect right to express even if people might not agree with him.

To suggest that he should never have expressed the view is to imply that religious leaders should just be quiet when serious issues of conscience stare them in the face. That surely is the opposite of what religious faith is meant to be.

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