- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 23, 2007

LONDON — Prime Minister Tony Blair is to announce that he will convert to Roman Catholicism soon after his planned meeting with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican tomorrow, according to church sources and his friends.

Mr. Blair, an Anglican, may even inform the pope of his intentions and seek his approval at the audience, which he is expected to attend with his wife, Cherie, a devout Catholic, and their daughter Kathryn.

Downing Street aides, who had wanted to hold back an announcement until after Mr. Blair steps down as prime minister on Wednesday, would not confirm the intended conversion.

However, it is Mr. Blair’s firm intention to begin formal preparations as soon as possible after the handover of power to Gordon Brown, according to sources.

A source aware of Mr. Blair’s views said: “It is clear to many people that this is now going to happen.”

There has never been a Catholic prime minister in Britain, although there is no longer a formal constitutional bar. However, Mr. Blair would have been aware that to convert while at 10 Downing Street could have caused a potential conflict with his role in choosing bishops for the Church of England.

It is likely that Mr. Blair would begin a private course of instruction with a spiritual director and would be expected to be formally received into the Catholic Church at a special service.

His audience with the pope — which could be postponed if the European Summit overruns its schedule — will be his third visit to the Vatican in four years and reflects his growing fascination with Catholicism.

Sources said that he may well revive a pending invitation to the pope to visit the United Kingdom, possibly fulfilling a wish of the late Pope John Paul II to visit Northern Ireland.

Mr. Blair is also expected to discuss the Middle East and his growing interest in promoting cooperation and understanding among the faiths, which friends say will be a key part of a new foundation he plans to establish.

Rumors that Mr. Blair intends to convert have been circulating in Catholic circles and in Westminster for years, but have grown increasingly strong as his departure from office nears.

Friends say that he studies both the Bible and the Koran daily, and much of his political philosophy has been influenced by the social teachings of the Catholic Church. He is a particular admirer of the maverick German theologian Hans Kung.

The latest round of speculation was sparked last month by the Rev. Michael Seed, a friend of the Blair family who has celebrated Mass at 10 Downing Street, who suggested that Mr. Blair would convert to Catholicism after leaving Downing Street.

Church sources have been saying for some time that Mr. Blair, whose three children have been brought up as Catholics, was already a Catholic in all but name as he rarely attended Anglican services except on state occasions.

In the past he has attended Mass at Westminster Cathedral in London with his family and, for security reasons, at 10 Downing Street.

He has also attended Mass regularly at Chequers and is said to attend services on his own when he is abroad.

Three years ago his parish priest at Chequers, the Rev. Timothy Russ, disclosed that Mr. Blair had discussed becoming a Catholic with him.

But Father Russ added that Mr. Blair, whose views on a range of issues from abortion to stem-cell research are at odds with traditional church teaching, had “some way to go” on important moral issues.

In a new book, Father Russ also reveals that Mr. Blair even discussed the possibility of becoming a Catholic deacon, a position below that of a priest, which can be held by lay people.

In 1996, Cardinal Basil Hume, the late archbishop of Westminster, wrote to him demanding that he cease taking Communion at his wife’s church in Islington, although he added it was “all right to do so in Tuscany for the holidays … as there was no Anglican church nearby.”

Mr. Blair made it clear in a response that he did not agree, asking in a letter to Cardinal Hume: “I wonder what Jesus would have made of it?”

A spokesman for Downing Street said last night: “This story seems to circulate fairly frequently but, as we have said before, he continues to be a member of the Church of England.”

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