A DEAFENING SILENCE; Jewish and Muslim Leaders Follow Catholic Cardinal to Speak out on Abortion, but from the Prime Minister and Church of England .

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JEWISH and Muslim leaders stepped up the pressure on Tony Blair over abortion yesterday.

They joined Roman Catholic leaders in calling for sweeping curbs in an appeal that could powerfully influence at least eight million voters.

Chief Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks declared that abortion has become a 'mere convenience', while Iqbal Sacranie, secretarygeneral of the Muslim Council of Britain, said 'any civilised society should be seriously alarmed' about the number of terminations.

In contrast, Anglicans looking for guidance found only silence. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, declined to join the debate and the three senior bishops normally charged with speaking on issues of public concern were unavailable. It was left to officials to issue a brief statement restating a 2002 policy decision about possible reforms.

There was no further comment either from Mr Blair, who has said he sees no need to review the law. But with the Premier facing a sharp loss of ground among voters from major religious groups, Downing Street tried to defuse the situation. A spokesman called for 'calm' and said abortion was a matter of conscience and not a fit subject for election campaigning.

But it was clear Mr Blair's attempts to stifle the debate - which began when Tory leader Michael Howard signalled his support for cutting the time limit on abortions from 24 weeks to 20 - were failing. On Monday, Cardinal Cormac Murphy- O'Connor, leader of Roman Catholics in England and Wales, 'commended' Mr Howard and told Catholic voters to consider candidates' positions on abortion.

Yesterday Dr Sacks said: 'The current law has consequences that few foresaw at the time.

Too often, abortion is being used for mere convenience as a belated form of birth control.

'This is ethically unacceptable.

We have a duty to protect life, including that of the unborn child, and if this is not respected, serious questions must be raised about the nature of our culture.' He added: 'Clearly, the time has come to reconsider our stance on abortion, and give weight to the rights of the unborn child.' The call from the Chief Rabbi will resonate with voters beyond the 300,000- strong Orthodox Jewish community.

Dr Sacks is seen by many outside his own faith as a more reliable interpreter of moral issues than some Church of England bishops.

Mr Sacranie said: 'We welcome Michael Howard's stance which we hope will reduce the number of abortions that occur in this country.

'There are around 600 abortions every single day in the UK.

Any civilised society should be seriously alarmed about this.

Islam commands us to respect the sanctity of all human life.' He added: 'The only cases in which an abortion could be contemplated is if the mother's life was in grave danger if she were to carry on with the pregnancy or in the case of a foetus that is not sustainable outside of the womb due to severe abnormalities and defects - and this is a recent opinion among some Muslim scholars.

'In all other cases we believe that abortion is a terrible crime against innocents.' His call could badly damage Labour's previous near-monopoly of Muslim votes, already under threat over the Iraq war.

The estimated four million voters among Britain's six million Catholics have also traditionally leaned to Labour, but Cardinal Murphy- O'Connor warned earlier this week that may no longer be the case. …