THE BISHOPS gave strong support this week to a controversial pledge seeking to stop politicians from exploiting racial issues in the coming election.
They rallied to the aid of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), which triggered a furious partypolitical row after it revealed the names of MPs who had refused to sign its code of conduct for political campaigners.
Bishop Patrick O'Donoghue, chairman of the bishops' Office for Refugee Policy, said he was "dismayed" that the code had become the focus of "petty squabbling".
He said the pledge was a "commendable initiative" and that he could not understand why politicians would not wish to sign it.
The code, known as the Election Compact, asked politicians to "reject all forms of racial violence, racial harassment and unlawful racial discrimination" in the run-up to the election.
Shadow Home Secretary Ann Widdecombe, a Catholic, described the compact at the weekend as "silly", but said she had signed it to avoid creating a "distraction".
John Gummer, Conservative MP for Suffolk Coastal, also a Catholic, said that although he agreed with the code's principles, it was improper for the CRE to imply that candidates who did not sign it were racist He said: 'Democratic politicians don't answer to the CRE. They answer to their constituents. The CRE is, in fact, paid for by the state. It is improper for an organisation funded by the state to interfere in the election in this way."
The bishops of England and Wales, however, underlined their support for the compact in a new leaflet asking Catholics to challenge election candidates on racial justice and the plight of asylum seekers.
The leaflet, which will be distributed in the run-up to the general election, urges Catholics to ask candidates whether they will adhere to the commission's principles of good practice and conduct for political campaigners.
It states that although there is a broad agreement "in principle" across the main political parties that race should not become an election issue, sonic issues ''can be articulated in such a way as to have racial overtones". It oilers asylum, immigration, affirmative action street crime and policing as examples.
It also suggests that Catholics seek a promise from candidates that they will work "to eliminate both overt and covert racism from public life" and especially during local and national elections.
Richard Zipfel, secretary of the bishops' Committee for Community Relations, which produced the leaflet with the bishops' Office for Refugee Policy, encouraged Catholics to ask candidates about the pledge even though the row had turned it into a "political football".
"If candidates say they aren't willing to adhere to the principles of good practice set out by the CRE, then Catholics should simply ask what the reasons are and evaluate the reasons the candidates put forward," he said.
The A4 leaflet asks Catholics to question candidates on six other issues relating to racial justice and asylum. It highlights the need to regenerate poor estates, to increase support for failing schools and to eliminate violence and discrimination against ethnic minorities. It also draws attention to the issue of "institutional racism" and the "unjust" voucher scheme for refugees. The fund page of the four-page leaflet lists a series of statements made by the bishops over the past 20 years on ethnic minorities and racism.
"I think many Catholics aren't aware that the bishops have spoken out so many times on these controversial issues," Mr Zipfel said. "Although they've been measured statements, they've always been supportive of minorities and asylum seekers. Many Catholics will be struck by how forceful and consistent the bishops have been over the past 20 years."
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