The media often portrays religion as a source of contention, war and conflict, but does religion really give value to the world? Is interfaith important to society? Why must we stand up for freedom of religion or belief? At a conference sponsored by Henry Smith, MP for Crawley, and organised by the All Faiths Network, MPs Stephen Timms, Chair of the APPG on Faith and Religion, and Fiona Bruce, PM’s Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief came together with people of faith at Parliament to deliberate these very issues.
Martin Weightman, Director of the All Faiths Network, introduced a 14 strong panel of speakers representing a wide variety of faith organisations in the UK who presented an undeniable snapshot of the incredible work that faith does. He also highlighted a book the group had recently published called People of Faith Rising Above COVID-19 giving testimony to the work of religious groups and documenting the tremendous and often unrecognised value of religious communities.
Henry Smith MP, welcomed the attendees to the meeting and told of his own constituency experiences where there are many diverse religions saying that, “faith can bring strength to our communities and particularly in the context of young people, helping them to grow and develop.”
Stephen Timms MP, Chair for the APPG (All Party Parliamentary Group) on Faith and Society outlined the important role that faith and interfaith activities have in fulfilling different needs in society and providing voluntary support. He explained that the APPG had issued a Faith Covenant (https://www.faithandsociety.org/covenant/), which local authorities are signing, to lay the ground rules for collaboration between councils and faith groups so as to encourage stronger cooperation. The APPG has also published a 2020 report on faith contributions to society (https://www.faithandsociety.org/) where most councils surveyed found that their interaction with faith groups was a positive and supportive one.
Fiona Bruce MP, Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief, spoke of her endeavours to bring about greater FoRB around the world giving examples of different cases where this is heavily restricted but also of some of the successes where FoRB has won through. She also spoke of other initiatives she is involved with including the forthcoming Inter-Ministerial Conference in London this July being attended by governments from 50 countries around world, the subject of which is respect and adherence to religious freedom principles. Fiona Bruce later tweeted “Wonderful to be in the company of so any people so enthusiastic about FoRB at today’s meeting of the All Faiths Network in the UK Parliament”.
Following the presentation of Fiona Bruce, Alessandro Amicarelli, lawyer and Chair of the European Federation for Freedom of Belief highlighted the religious persecution in China and elsewhere and emphasised the need for coordinated action internationally to deal with these issues. He said that whilst the UN is taking some steps, it is not other and it was very important for other countries, especially the UK and the USA to become involved. He said the upcoming Ministerial, as already outlined by Fiona Bruce was an important opportunity for this to occur and make pressure on different governments where persecution is occurring.
Sheik Rahman of the Ahmadiyya Moslems Sheik Rahman then told the meeting that he wanted to thank the UK for ensuring that his faith was able to develop freely and without government discrimination in the UK. He reiterated the previous calls for ensuring human rights especially as we are living in an interconnected global world with social media bringing us even closer. He said that we must always connect and reflect on where we are and where we are heading. He also called for a more equal distribution of resources and the critical need to promote the embodiment of humanity and justice in our own lives.
Harriet Crabtree OBE, Director of the UK’s Inter Faith Network told the meeting of the quiet but consistent background activities that have been going on for many years since IFN’s inception 35 years ago, and how it has moved forward throughout these years. She said that interfaith work is not easy to do, that it is often underestimated, underfunded and under supported, but that those involved want to be the people they have the potential to be, not to be snarled up by prejudice which only hinders happiness. She said that we are all pioneers in a constantly evolving world.
Rabbi Jeff Berger quite comprehensively summed up the spirit of interfaith by telling the meeting that “The challenge for those of us who hold a faith belief is having courage to move from exclusivity to inclusion. From ‘my faith is the only true faith, and everyone needs to join me’ – to ‘each of our faiths is a unique expression of the Divine message given at a specific time in history’. The responsibility of creating a more inclusive, tolerant religious dialogue, and teaching greater religious literacy, falls squarely at the feet of faith leaders.”
Tracey Coleman, Community Officer of the Church of Scientology told the meeting, “I believe that faith in the 21stcentury plays a vital role in bringing real solutions and practical help to our communities. As faith volunteers we are motivated by our desire to help other human beings. Working together with other faiths during the pandemic, we developed relationships based on true respect and friendship. This is the beauty of the interfaith dimension. It is a force that dissolves intolerance and builds peace, therefore actions to uphold freedom of religion and belief must be increased so that people of faith can continue their vital work.”
Mandip Singh, Trustee of the Central Gurdwara London and co-founder of Gurdwara Aid gave excellent examples of value of Sikh contributions to their own and the wider community through the Sikh tradition of langar – a community kitchen preparing and serving vegetarian food for free. At the hight of the pandemic he estimates that around 90,000 free hot meals each day were being sent to frontline staff and vulnerable communities. “It is a place where poor and needy can always get a nourishing meal,” he said, “This all stems from the Sikh spiritual motivation called Sewa (selfless service) and for caring about the welfare of all.”
Sheik Ramzy, Director of Oxford Islamic Information Centre and an imam of Oxford University, also addressed some of the worst religious discrimination issues in the world such as Uyghurs enslaved in China, Rohingya killed in Myanmar. He pointed out that, “interfaith offers an immense contribution to society, It reminds us that our neighbours matter. Upholding human rights is a vital part of loving our neighbours and for those discriminated against we must remember that their rights are our responsibility.”
Ahsan Ahmedi representing Crawley Interfaith Network (CIFN) gave some practical examples to the meeting explaining that CIFN had become a focal point for issues related to religion. Schools would contact them when they needed to have faith speakers, when local tensions arose the police would come to CIFN for assistance and overall they helped the community become more tolerant.
Rev. Dr. Precious Toe, founder Women Worship Gospel Music awards, said, “that working with other faiths is an empowering experience. We give value to society by building bridges. We are helping the next generations of women through our music and give voice to the voiceless as we rise for peace, love, humanity and oneness.”
Summing up the meeting Mr. Weightman said, “the purpose of the meeting today was to highlight the value of faith and interfaith activity in society and to generate greater support, awareness and broader understanding of this work, the moral value that religions bring to society and the importance of setting an example to others. I think all attendees did this admirably and we will continue to develop this as a work in progress.
“There are clearly some tough issues to be addressed. The problem of violent religious extremism – which was raised during the meeting. There is Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and discrimination against minority religions to name some key issues – but whilst all these rightly have a focus in the mainstream media, they are but a small part of the activities which relate to religious activity. There should be more focus on the positive news relating to religions and interfaith activity. I am therefore very thankful for the support and backing of the MPs and all the attendees who truly care and wish to develop a greater understanding and awareness of these issues and to protect and value freedom of religion or belief”