London (AFP) - Prime Minister David Cameron was accused Monday of sowing sectarianism and division after his repeated assertions that Britain is still a "Christian country", proving how problematic it remains to mix faith and British politics.
More than 50 public figures from the arts and sciences signed an open letter rejecting Cameron's characterisation of multi-cultural, multi-faith Britain and warning that such a claim "fosters alienation and division in our society".
Their criticism came after Cameron used an Easter message to urge Britons to be "more evangelical" about their religion and "more confident about our status as a Christian country".
The Conservative leader has always been open about his Church of England faith but in the past has said his belief in God "goes in and out", comparing it to an unreliable radio signal.
In recent weeks he has been increasingly outspoken, however, dispensing with the trend set by his predecessors for discreet Anglican faith that will not upset secular Britain.
"Some people feel that in this ever more secular age we shouldn't talk about these things. I completely disagree," Cameron wrote last week in the Church Times, an Anglican newspaper.
"I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people's lives."
In an open letter organised by the British Humanist Association and published in the Daily Telegraph newspaper, critics disputed Cameron's claim that Britain is still a Christian country.
While the established Church of England runs state-funded schools and has Queen Elizabeth II as its Supreme Governor, the signatories noted many Britons do not identify themselves as Christian.
"Constantly to claim otherwise fosters alienation and division in our society," said the letter, signed by writers Philip Pullman and Terry Pratchett and the Nobel Prize-winning scientists John Sulston and Harold Kroto.
They added that highlighting the social contribution of Christians above others "needlessly fuels enervating sectarian debates".
- 'We don't do God' -
The majority -- 59.3 percent -- of people in England and Wales said they were Christian in the last census in 2011, but this is down from 71.7 percent 10 years earlier.
The number of those reporting no religion was 25.1 percent, up from 14.8 percent in 2001 -- among them Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, and opposition Labour leader Ed Miliband.
Cameron's new public evangelism may help build bridges with the Church, which opposed the introduction of gay marriage last year and whose members have criticised the impact of the government's austerity measures.
But the criticism he has provoked is a reminder of how tricky the issue can be.
Former Labour prime minister Tony Blair was a devout Christian but his spokesman Alistair Campbell stopped him answering questions about his faith, once declaring: "We don't do God."
Blair converted to Catholicism after leaving office in 2007, but said he was reticent to discuss faith before then because "you always get into trouble talking about it".
While it was commonplace in the United States and elsewhere for politicians to talk about their religious convictions, Blair told the BBC, "you talk about it in our system and, frankly, people do think you're a nutter".
A spokeswoman for Cameron said the prime minister had made clear as far back as December 2011 that he believed Britain was a Christian country, although he recognises the importance of different faith groups.
"He has said on many occasions that he is incredibly proud that Britain is home to many different faith communities, who do so much to make the UK a stronger country," she said.
Anil Bhanot, managing director of the Hindu Council UK, told the BBC that he was "very comfortable" with Britain being described as a Christian country.