Opinion: The purpose within religion

One of the more contentious debating points surrounding the current draft Charities Bill has been how far religion can claim to be a charitable purpose. Should those churches that go out proselytising be allowed charitable status on the basis that some of the social work they do in the community - often as a direct result of what they read as a gospel imperative to help the poor - brings a public benefit?

I'm a low-key church-goer with absolutely no missionary spirit, and have always been nervous of religious zeal. Prima facie, I believe that as far as possible it should be separated from charity, for what underlies a lot of the laudable work carried out - especially by fundamentalist religious organisations in the community - is the hope that it will bring converts. Such an ulterior motive is not a charitable purpose.

But my fear is that such a reservation bleeds all too easily into the more general tendency today always to see religion as something negative, something that divides people and causes wars and terrorism, and, therefore, something uncharitable. So I have been watching with interest over the past months efforts by Cafod, the Catholic development agency, to work hand-in-hand with Islamic Relief to alleviate the suffering of the 150,000 people left homeless by the earthquake in Bam, southern Iran. There are also similar joint projects in Chechnya and Afghanistan.

The co-operation between Cafod and Islamic Relief has been a success and is a beacon of hope. It is immediately practical. In Bam, Cafod's money is being spent on a health and education project with mothers. But it goes beyond that. The recipients know the source of project funding, and so it may change some of their ideas about Western Christians as the agents of a Bible-clutching George Bush. And, more generally, at this time of the war on terror, it shows that, when confronted with real human situations, obstacles between the world's faiths are more imagined than real. Now that, it seems to me, is a genuine charitable purpose associated with religion.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster. He chaired the trustees of the national disability charity Aspire and now sits on various trustee boards.

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