BY SIMON CALDWELL
A SENIOR bishop is threatening to lead an exodus of Christians from Amnesty International after the human rights group adopted a policy of fighting for the decriminalisation of abortion around the world.
Bishop Michael Evans of East Anglia announced at the weekend that "very regretfully" he was quitting Amnesty after 31 years of active membership in protest at the abortion policy agreed at a meeting of Amnesty leaders in Mexico last week.
The organisation's International Council rubber-stamped the pmposals as part of its Stop Violence Against Women campaign.
It voted to "support the decriminalisation of abortion, to ensure women have access to health care when complications arise from abortion and to defend women's access to abortion, within reasonable gestational limits, when their health or human rights are in danger".
But Bishop Evans said that the policy made it very difficult for Catholics to remain members of Amnesty or to give it any futancial support.
"This regrettable decision will almost certainly divide Atnnesty's membership and thereby undermine its vital work," he said. "Among all human rights, the right to life is fundamental."
Bishop Evans added: "Very regretfully, I will be ending my 31-year membership of Amnesty International... I remain deeply committed to Amnesty's original mandate: to work for freedom for prisoners of conscience, an end to torture and the death penalty, and fair trials for all." The bishop added that the Catholic Church shared Amnesty's strong commitment to opposing violence against women but said that "appalling violence must not be answered by violence against the most vulnerable and defenceless form of human life in a woman's womb".
He said: "Catholics would want to show practical compassion for such women, and ensure for them all the medical and spiritual care and support they need. But there is no human right to access to abortion, and Amnesty should not involve itself even in such extreme cases."
Amnesty International was set up in 1961 by Oxford lawyer Peter Benenson, a convert to Catholicism, to fight for the release of prisoners of conscience, for fair trials for political prisoners and for an end to torture, ill-treatment, political killings, disappearances and the death penalty.
Bishop Evans, 56, joined the group in 1976, a year after he was ordained a priest, and immediately began encouraging Church-based justice and peace groups to affiliate to the organisation.
He soon became a member of Amnesty's British Section Council and the chairman of the British Section Religious Bodies Liaison Panel.
He was consecrated a bishop in 2003 and about two years later the prayer he was asked to compose for Amnesty's highprofile "Protect the Human" campaign, which had the aim of recruiting a million new British members. was published on thousands of posters and cards.
Amnesty International declined to express any regret over the decision by Bishop Evans to leave the group.
A spokeswoman said: "Amnesty International supports freedom of expression of every person . As such, Amnesty respects Bishop Michael Evans's decision to resign his membership from the movement. Equally. however, there are several Catholics who've chosen not to do so but continue to support the work of Amnesty."
However, it is clear that the bishop may be among many thousands of Catholics who no longer feel they can work for human rights thmugh Amnesty International.
Two months ago the Vatican urged Catholics to withdraw their support for the organisation. Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, said Amnesty International had "betrayed its mission" by abandoning its traditional neutral policy on abortion.
On Sunday the Vatican reiterated its opposition to Amnesty's new policy.
Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, one of Benedict XVI's closest aides, told Vatican Radio that "men and women of the Church throughout the world have already made their stark opposition to this decision clear".
He said: "Violence cannot be answered by further violence. murder with murder. for even if the child is unborn it is still a human person. It has a right to dignity as a human Michael Hill, a Catholic and a former Amnesty activist from Rotherham, south Yorkshire, said that many Catholics in Britain were already leaving the group but that others were determined to stay.
"They should leave, but I think there are a lot of people out there who will wrongly rationalise the new policy against the good work that Amnesty International does," he said. "We should continue human rights work but with other groups."
Abortion is legal in most European countries, with the notable exceptions of the largely Catholic countries of Malta, Poland and the Republic of Ireland.
In most African and Latin American countries it is permitted only in cases of rape or when the mother's life is in danger. The Islamic world is even more restrictive, with the exception of Tunisia, which allows abortion during the first three months.
As the largest and most influential human rights group in the world, Amnesty is now likely to put its legal expertise and lobbying power into helping to shape international treaties and agreements that favour legal abortion.
Amnesty has previously criticised the Vatican for its stance against abortion and in 2005 described the refusal by America to pay for abortions overseas as "an attempt to stifle the evolution of the human rights framework".
Kate Gilmore, the Londonbased executive deputy secretary general of Amnesty International, said the group simply supported "women's human rights to be free of fear, threat and coercion as they manage all consequences of rape and other grave human rights violations".
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