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Report your interfaith work, says Minister


THE GOVERNMENT is urging faith communities to contribute to an "honest and open" debate on race equality and the way Britain can become an integrated society. They can play a key part in providing leadership and bringing together people of different faiths and cultures, a Home Office consultation document suggests.

"Every faith has different beliefs, but there is a recognition that human beings have some sense of responsibility towards one anther, whether it’s in the context of a deity or in some other context," said Fiona Mactaggart, Minister for Race Equality, Community Policy and Civil Renewal (pictured, right), in a Church Times interview on Monday.

"That mutual sense of obligation, which seems to be a very important part of all the major faiths, is a part of this. And if we can use that understanding of obligation, and also the kind of connectedness which congregations have, to reflect that kind of mutuality, then I think we can do it better," she said. She emphasised that the consultation document, Strength in Diversity, was an attempt to move away from "the slightly ritualistic way" in which the Government tended to seek people’s views.

The pamphlet acknowledges a complex picture, and reiterates that integration is not about assimilation into a single homogeneous culture. One of the main lessons from the riots in northern England in 2001 was that "a lack of shared vision and principles" contributed to the breakdown of cohesion, it suggests. The document poses direct questions, such as: "How can we ensure that all communities see racism, racial and religious harassment and hate crime as unacceptable and are able to act to drive them out?"

If political and religious extremism was to be stopped, there must be engagement with what had fed it, Ms Mactaggart suggested. "Because they [people in 2001] were completely ignorant about the lives and values and experiences of people who were in fact their neighbours, there wasn’t any glue and frame that pulled them together. . . We have to be clear about what it is in our humanity that pulls us together as a society," she said.

Given that church leaders are already prominent in speaking on race equality, asylum and justice issues, there remains a question about what more they can do. "Faiths talk about this stuff all the time, and not only talk about it, but do things. These conversations are happening, but there isn’t an established experience of making them turn into responses to things like this [consultation]," the Minister reflected.

She urged: "If you have a discussion within a congregation or a prayer meeting, or an action coming out of a group of people organised voluntarily within a church and working with excluded minorities and so on, how do we capture that in terms of government policy? I’m asking: feed back what you do. I know that if those who are currently engaged in civic action of this kind, motivated by faith, say their piece in this consultation, then what comes out at the end of it will be better as a result."

The document takes the position that political and religious extremists do not speak on behalf of the communities they purport to represent, and refers to the need to counter the false perceptions they promote. It cites examples where local faith initiatives are building bridges between communities, including the use of a Roman Catholic centre in Tower Hamlets for prayers during Ramadan. Local strategic partnerships are increasingly drawing members from interfaith networks, Ms Mactaggart said.

"Interfaith activity in local communities seems to be growing very fast," she commented. "When the faiths get together, and say: ‘These are the things we have in common and these are the experiences we bring to the party, let’s get together to fix this problem in our neighbourhood,’ I’m optimistic that will prove a big resource in making this work."

The Government has increased resourcing of interfaith and voluntary organisations to the tune of £72 million, "for the kind of things that it is very hard to shake the tin for," the Minister said. She continued, however: "This sounds brutal, but the experience of raising money and getting that practical support for initiatives helps them to be better."

When it came to healing relationships between communities, would the Government be prepared to draw on some of the Christian expertise of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa or the Corrymeela Community in Northern Ireland?

"Every faith community has very strong views on justice and reparation and reconciliation. We’ve worked with the interfaith networks in Leeds looking at these kinds of issues," she said. "We didn’t come up with a single answer, but we got some clues about slightly different ways of working in the prisons and in justice organisations and so on, which have influenced some practices. I like to think so, anyway."

The political debate in Britain had traditionally been secular, the Minister concluded. "We’ve therefore been a bit frightened sometimes of learning the insights that faith brings to the table. Actually, let’s not be frightened of these insights. They’re powerful, and we can learn from them. Let’s draw on them and make discourse."

The consultation document is at
http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/docs3/strengthdiversity.html

Consultation closes in mid-September.

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