May 30, 2008 / 5:09 PM / 11 years ago

Backed by Clinton, Blair launches Faith Foundation

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, joined by his old friend Bill Clinton, launched his Faith Foundation on Friday with a call for more idealism and less religious extremism.

Former U.S. president Bill Clinton (L) introduces former British Prime Minister Tony Blair to the podium at the official launch of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation in New York May 30, 2008. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Taking a break from the presidential campaign of his wife, Hillary Clinton, the former U.S. president described Blair as “a good man as well as a great leader” and said the Faith Foundation would build on Clinton’s own foundation’s work in using religion to bridge divides.

“His own religious faith is genuine, deep and shapes his life,” Clinton said of Blair, who converted to Catholicism in December after stepping down as prime minister last June.

Blair, whose faith was often viewed with suspicion by the British media, said he was inspired to create the Faith Foundation by the Clinton Global Initiative, which works on issues of poverty, climate change, health and education.

Blair, who is an international envoy for Palestinian economic development, said increasing globalization requires peaceful coexistence and cooperation.

“We must be global citizens as well as citizens of our country,” he told an audience of academics, media, and business and religious leaders. “Idealism becomes the new realism.”

Blair cited a Gallup Poll showing the percentage of people in most Muslim countries who said religion was an important part of their lives is in the high 80s or 90s; in the United States around 70 percent, and in Europe under 40 percent.

“You cannot understand the modern world unless you understand the importance of religious faith,” Blair said.

Among the foundation’s goals will be to counter extremism, which he said was present in all the six leading faiths — Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh and Jewish.

“Though there is much focus, understandably, on extremism associated with the perversion of the proper faith of Islam, there are elements of extremism in every major faith,” Blair said. The foundation will work with Yale University, where Blair will lead a course on “faith and globalization.”

The foundation also will partner with a group called Malaria No More which aims to prevent the 1 million annual deaths from malaria within 10 years — a goal Blair said was achievable by using bed-nets and medicines.

Malaria No More encourages mosques, churches and other religious institutions help distribute those items.

Blair swept to power in Britain on a wave of optimism in 1997, but by the time he stepped down, his popularity was dented by his support for the Iraq war. Clinton’s final years in office overlapped with Blair’s first term and both said they had developed a close friendship since then.

Editing by Vicki Allen

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