04 June 2021, The Tablet

Jesuit priest fasts to fight foreign aid cuts

Jesuit priest fasts to fight foreign aid cuts

A Catholic parish priest has staged a hunger strike in protest against the government’s planned cuts to the foreign aid budget.

Fr Denis Blackledge SJ, aged 78, parish priest of St Francis Xavier’s church in Everton, Liverpool, has never before protested anything in his life, but was so outraged by the decision that he felt compelled to make a public gesture against it. I

In a video release by Jesuit Missions ahead of his protest Fr Denis said he was “disgusted” at the government, which broke its 2019 election promises to give 0.7 per cent of GDP to overseas development.

He said: “They’ve knocked off, effectively, £4.5 billion, but we’re still budgeting £6 billion a year on UK defence.” As a result, 4.5 million children a year will be unable to a receive a decent education...3.6 million people will be left without sustainable access to clean water, he said.

Speaking about his decision to go without food for 24 hours – his “little gesture” – he urged others to join him in his fast and campaign to stop the cut. 

“I want to be alongside people and to bring them into hope and encouragement, into love and compassion...my little gesture of 24 hours, of being without food for 24 hours, will say to other people: well I can do that, you can be that heart, God’s younger heart, get out and do a bit yourselves, and work for our brothers and sisters who are worse off than you. Amen, hallelujah, end of story.”

Should the cuts go ahead, some programmes would lose 85 per cent of their budget or more, effectively gutting them. Amongs the planned spending reductions were items such as  UK aid to Yemen, which will be reduced from the £197m pledged in 2020 to only £87m, and aid for civilians in Syria, which will be halved.

Among some of the worst hit are the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, down from £100m to £5m, and education funding for girls which is expected to be reduced by as much as 40 per cent. 

The decision by the UK government to go back on its previous commitment to spend at least 0.7 per cent GDP on overseas aid has drawn criticism not only from NGOs and the opposition, but also from within its own ranks.

Fr Denis’ fast raised £700 for Jesuit Missions, Cafod and the Jesuit Refugee Service.

As the campaigning Jesuit was fasting and praying, Conservative MPs led by former international development secretary Andrew Mitchell tabled an amendment to the budget that would reverse the cuts, with supporters including senior Tories, such as former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, former Northern Ireland secretary Karen Bradley, former Brexit secretary David Davis and former immigration minister Caroline Nokes.

Andew Mitchell said: “Every single member of the House of Commons was elected on a very clear manifesto promise to stand by this commitment. We have repeatedly urged the government to obey the law and implored ministers to reconsider breaking this commitment.

“The cuts are now having a devastating impact on the ground and are leading to unnecessary loss of life. We urge the government to think again, or we shall be asking parliament to reaffirm the law as it stands so as to oblige the government to meet its legal commitment, keep its very clear pledge to British voters and uphold Britain’s promise to the rest of the world.”

The cuts have already drawn fierce criticism from religious leaders, including Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, who said: “The great tragedies of forced mass migration and human trafficking must be tackled at their source. Carefully targeted and well managed overseas aid programmes are an essential part of this effort. In the face of these catastrophes, this is no time to reduce the UK’s contribution or effort.”

The Archbishop quoted Fratelli Tutti, the Pope’s encyclical on human fraternity, warning that “nowadays we are either all saved together or no one is saved” and that that if in some parts of our world “individuals or peoples are prevented from developing their potential by poverty or other structural limitations, in the end, this will impoverish us all”.

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