A RELIGIOUS leader has called on voters in this May's local elections to reject political parties that spread racial hatred.

The Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Rev Nicholas Reade, has made the rallying cry against extremism in a letter to the county's Anglican churches, which will be published this weekend.

The Rt Rev Reade urged voters not to be duped by far right parties which he claims have altered their image to hide the fact they are still pedalling racial prejudice.

He said: "I must urge the strongest possible rejection of the divisive policies of far-right political factions.

"They may have fine-tuned their outward image, but their ideas remain the gutter politics of racial hatred.

"The policies which such parties advance provide a blueprint for everything that Christians should renounce: contempt for minorities, ignorant victimisation of differences, and the denial of democracy.

"Their propaganda should be read as a recipe for rejection among Christian voters in Lancashire."

The bishop points to a private member's motion from the Blackburn Diocese in 2005 which led the Church of England's general synod to unanimously call for Christians to reject racist parties.

The motion was passed in response to support for the British National Party in local elections in parts of Lancashire, at that time.

And he added that the diversity of the county was something that should be celebrated.

He said: "Let us celebrate the diversity of our developing society, seeking to encourage candidates committed to policies that benefit those of all ethnicities and cultures."

The comments drew criticism from former BNP local leader Steven Smith, now chairman of the far-right Cliviger-based England First Party - who described himself as having an "open mind" on religion.

He said: "The Bishop is confusing a desire to preserve racial and cultural identity with racial hatred.

"If there is any racial hatred it's come along as a result of the liberal establishment which people like the Bishop of Blackburn support."