In 1910, when Bethlehem was a town in a sleepy province of the Ottoman Empire, a local man built a magnificent house on the main road from Jerusalem to Hebron. Made from the region's limestonewhose shades, from pale honey to dazzling white, give the Holy Land its distinctive palettethe house was built around courtyards and fountains in the Ottoman style; frescoes and mosaics graced its walls and ceilings. In the 1930s, the man's family went bankrupt. The house was later used as a prison by the British, when they governed Palestine under a League of Nations mandate; it then did service as a police academy and a school. But in 2000 the old house was converted into a hotel. Closed during the second intifadeh, the Jacir Palace InterContinental reopened its doors in 2005.
On the evening of May 21, hundreds of business leaders from the region and beyond flowed through the halls of the hotel, past banks of honeysuckle and jasmine, into the garden, where cooks grilled chicken on giant charcoal burners and served baba ghanoush, tabbouleh and baklava. Participants at a conference on investment opportunities in Palestine, they talked up the prospects of the local information-technology industry (whose products, which can be whizzed to markets electronically, are not subject to the whims of Israeli border guards) and bragged about the performance of the Palestine stock exchange. At the center of the crowdtrim, smiling and looking a lot more relaxed than he did a year ago, when he resigned as Britain's Prime Minister after 10 years at the postwas Tony Blair, the special envoy to the Middle East of the U.S.-Russia-European Union-U.N. "Quartet" of powers.
On May 30 in New York, Blair, 55, formally unveils The Tony Blair Faith Foundation, which, among other things, is dedicated to proving that collaboration among those of different religious faiths can help address some of the world's most pressing social problems. A quick look around the crowd at the Jacir Palace, and you might think that Blair's work was already donehere were Jews, Christians and Muslims working together to make life better for ordinary Palestinians. A more measured assessment would lead to a different, more depressing conclusion. The Jacir Palace is a few minutes' walk from a checkpoint at the looming security wall that Israel built after the second intifadeh, to physically separate the Jewish state from the West Bank. In Bethlehem, a long-established Arab Christian community is shrinking in the face of growing Islamic militancy. Even the Church of the Nativity (carved up by the Orthodox, Catholic, Assyrian, Coptic and Armenian denominations, a symbol of the divisions within Christianity) has not been immune to the clash of faiths. In 2002 Palestinian militants took refuge there, and together with civilians inside the church, were besieged by Israeli soldiers for 39 days. Blair understands very well that the Palestine-Israel conflict is about land, about culture, about competing narratives of historybut that it is also about faith. "Muslims often say of extremists," he says, "It's really got nothing to do with religion. And I say to them, These people say that they're doing it in the name of God, so we can't say that it doesn't matter. It does matter."
In two long conversations with Blair recently, I explored his conviction that religion mattersthat it shapes what people believe and how they behave, that it is vital to understanding our world, that it can be used to improve the lot of humankind. But if not engaged seriously, Blair thinks, faith can be used to induce ignorance, fear and a withdrawal of communities into mutually antagonistic spheres at just the time that globalization is breaking down barriers between peoples and nations. "Faith is part of our future," Blair says, "and faith and the values it brings with it are an essential part of making globalization work." For Blair, the goal is to rescue faith from the twin challenges of irrelevancethe idea that religion is no more than an interesting aspect of historyand extremism. Blair and those working with him think religion is key to the global agenda. "You can't hope to understand what's happening in the world if you don't know that religion is a very important force in people's lives," says Ruth Turner, 37, formerly a top aide to Blair in 10 Downing Street, who will head the foundation. "You can't make the world work properly unless you understand that, while not everyone will believe in God or have a spiritual life, a lot of people will." Blair, she says, has been thinking about these issues "for decades and decades and decades." Over time, says Blair of the foundation's work, "this is how I want to spend the rest of my life."
In Blair's home country (which is also mine), that comment will be met with a snort of derision. Blair is deeply religiousthe most openly devout political leader of Britain since William Ewart Gladstone more than 100 years ago. He handles questions about religion deftly. He doesn't back down. His longtime press secretary and consigliere, Alastair Campbell, remembers Blair in 1996 at a school in Scotland where a gunman had killed 16 children and a teacher. In a bloodstained classroom, Campbell asked Blair, "What does your God make of this?" Blair, says Campbell, stopped and replied, "Just because man is bad, it does not mean that God is not good." There was, says Campbell, a force, a sense of conviction in Blair.
All of which would be fine if Blair were, say, a U.S. politicianand so expected to profess his faith even if he didn't have much of one. But, at least in its public aspect, Britain is one of the most aggressively secular societies on the planet. Though Blair went to lengths not to make a big deal of his faith when in office ("We don't do God," Campbell once said, though he now insists he did so only to get rid of a journalist who had overrun his allotted time), that did not stop the British from making fun, or worse, of Blair for his religious beliefs.
For many Britons, the fact that Blair led them into a deeply unpopular war in Iraq is reason enough to question his sincerity. And the supposed "God is on our side" messianism of George W. BushBlair's geopolitical partneris widely loathed in Britain. But long before Iraq or his association with Bush, Blair's faith was a source of something like contempt. For many in the British media, there is no fault worse than to be a sanctimonious "Creeping Jesus." During Blair's time in office, the satirical magazine Private Eye ran a regular (and very funny) column in the form of a parish newsletter, with Blair cast as the cloyingly earnest vicar of St. Albion church. Over the years, I have been struck by the vehement unwillingness of people in Britain to accept that Blair's faith is genuine or that it might provide genuine insights into our global condition. His religiosity was "incomprehensible," one well-known intellectual sniffed recently; I have heard Blair's recent conversion to Catholicism, a faith that has long had a following among posh Brits (think Brideshead Revisited), explained on the grounds of "snob appeal."
This is nonsense. Blair's parents were not churchgoers. But John Rentoul, Blair's first biographer, pointed out years ago that Blair's faith had been noted by those around him since he was a small child. Blair "rediscovered" his Christianity, he told me, while a student at Oxford in the 1970s. He was part of an informal late-night wine-and-cigarettes discussion group led by Peter Thompson, a charismatic Australian student and Anglican priest then in his 30s. (Thompson, who now lives in Melbourne, does not talk about his relationship with Blair.) I went up to Oxford just before Blair did; it was absorbed with sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, with a sprinkling of student politics on top, and to espouse religion of any sort was to mark yourself as something of a freak. (My own family was deeply religious, something I successfully hid from my Oxford friends for years.) Those in Oxford's "God squad," Blair remembers, were at "the cutting edge of weirdism." Thompson, by contrast, Blair told me, was "an amazing guythe first person really to give me a sense that the faith I intuitively felt was something that could be reconciled with being a fun-loving, interesting, open person." In 1974 Blair was received into the Church of England at his college chapel.