Boris Johnson has struck back in a row with the Church of England, insisting his policy of sending some asylum seekers 4,000 miles to Rwanda is “morally right”.
The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have criticized the plan to send some asylum seekers on a one-way trip to East Africa on “moral and ethical grounds”.
Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, raised “serious ethical questions” during his Easter Sunday address, saying the policy cannot “stand the judgment of God”.
Mr Johnson faced criticism after sources in a private meeting with Tory MPs revealed he claimed the senior clergymen had “misconstructed the policy”.
The Prime Minister went on to claim they were “less vociferous” in their condemnation of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine than they were on the migration policy.
Mr Johnson defended his remarks and his Rwanda policy when speaking to journalists traveling with him on an official trip to India.
“I have a very good relationship with the archbishop, all I was saying was I think we have an excellent policy to try to stop people drowning at sea, in the Channel, and I was surprised to find it criticized,” he said.
“I think it’s the morally right thing to do, to stop criminal, cynical gangs from exploiting people and sending them to a watery grave.
“I think it’s a sensible, brave and original policy.”
Mr Johnson denied suggestions that he was also criticizing the BBC’s coverage of the Rwanda policy during his controversial remarks made after he apologized for being fined by police for breaching his coronavirus laws.
“What I said was, and I was very mild, I’m surprised this has engaged such a response. All I said is I thought the policy had been misconstructed on the BBC and by some parts of the clergy, that’s what I said,” he told reporters.
Earlier, Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer seized on the reports of the meeting when he went head-to-head with Mr Johnson in the Commons, claiming that the PM “accused the BBC of not being critical enough of Putin”.
He said: “Would the Prime Minister have the guts to say that to the face of (BBC reporters) Clive Myrie, Lyse Doucet and Steve Rosenberg, who have all risked their lives day in, day out, on the front line in Russia and Ukraine uncovering Putin’s barbarism?”
Tory party chairman Oliver Dowden wrote to Sir Keir calling for him to retract his comments and apologise to Mr Johnson.
“I am not aware that you have any evidence whatsoever to support this inaccurate claim,” he said.
Mr Welby and the Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, have publicly condemned Mr Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as an “act of great evil”.
Lambeth Palace issued a defense of the pair, with a spokesman saying: “The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as an act of great evil and spoken out repeatedly against it.
“In his Easter sermon the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke of the suffering and terror being experienced by Ukrainians, called on Russia to withdraw its forces and said ‘let the darkness of war be banished’.”
And he said the pair will continue to be outspoken against the asylum plan, saying: “They will continue to speak out against these plans on moral and ethical grounds.”
The Church of England’s head of news, John Bingham, said if the reports of Mr Johnson’s behind-closed-doors comment were true, it was a “disgraceful slur”.
At Prime Minister’s Questions, Sir Keir invited Mr Johnson to “apology for slandering the archbishop and the Church of England”.
The Prime Minister told the Labor leader: “I was slightly taken aback by the Government to be criticized over the policy that we have planned to end the deaths at sea in the Channel as a result of cruel criminal gangs.”
Meanwhile, senior Conservative MPs questioned the logic behind Government plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, as controversial immigration reforms edged closer to becoming law.
The Nationality and Borders Bill would allow the UK to send asylum seekers to a “safe third country” and to submit claims at a “designated place” determined by the Secretary of State.
On Wednesday, the Government started to overturn changes made to the Bill by peers, which saw MPs reject three amendments which were part of efforts to ensure any move to offshore asylum claims was subject to approval of both Houses of Parliament – along with a cost breakdown .