Churches throughout Leicestershire are calling for voters to shun the British National Party at the upcoming European and county council elections.
They have taken the radical step after the far-right party's controversial attempts to recruit the Christian vote by using religious imagery in its campaign material.
The Diocese of Leicester said it was "deeply concerned" by the BNP's suggestion that its policies – which include withdrawing aid from countries which do not take back legal immigrants – were in line with Christian beliefs. At services on Sunday many congregations will be urged to take a stand against the party at the ballot box next Thursday.
Clergy said they feared the current wave of political turmoil and voter apathy may lead to the BNP winning seats at County Hall and Brussels, even with a relatively small number of votes. The BNP has 48 candidates standing in next week's county council election and five standing for seats representing the East Midlands in the European parliament.
As part of its campaign it produced posters which bear a passage from John's gospel, a traditional image of Christ and the slogan "What would Jesus do? Vote BNP." The Diocese of Leicester said it was "totally opposed" to BNP policies.
Director of social responsibility Peter Yates said: "In fact, BNP policies would have turned Jesus, Mary and Joseph away from their party and from our shores when they were fleeing from Herod and seeking asylum. Churches Together in Leicestershire are totally opposed to the BNP's attempts to stir up racial and religious hatred, use false and distorted claims to exploit people's fears, and create suspicion between communities."
The Rev John Seaman is the priest at the parish church in Whitwick, where a BNP candidate is standing for a county council seat. He compared the church's campaign to that of the Confessing Church, which formed in Nazi Germany to oppose fascism.
He said: "It is a very unusual step. We do not want to be getting into party politics but I feel we have been left with no alternative but to counter this literature that the BNP have produced."
Worshippers will be urged to vote against the BNP in the church's weekly notice sheet this weekend.
The Rev Seaman said he was also considering using his Sunday sermon to call for people to make a stand. He said: "The worry is that if voters do not turn out we will let in people who encourage and foster racist policies – that is the last thing we want to happen here in Leicestershire."
At the Good Shepherd Church in Loughborough, the Rev Eric Whitley condemned BNP campaign tactics for being misleading and disguising the party's true policies. He said: "If you look at their underlying policies and what they stand for there is nothing Christian about the BNP at all – I would advise people to avoid them like the plague."
BNP deputy chairman Simon Darby said he believed that Leicestershire voters "would not take kindly" to being told by the Church who they should and should not vote for. He said: "The Diocese of Leicester does not have the monopoly on Christianity. I think their interests would be better served defending the Christian faith rather than criticising us."