YOUNG champions of interfaith engagement, who this week have been recognised for their work, have expressed hope for a more cohesive Britain where difference is celebrated.
Seven Christians, seven Jews, and seven Muslims were commended by a panel of judges for the 21 for 21 initiative, a joint project between the Church Times, Jewish News, British Muslim TV, and Coexist House, which is linked to the Cambridge Inter-faith Programme.
The Prime Minister has said of the project: “While religion is often used to draw dividing lines between us, the truth is that Jews, Christians, and Muslims share many values, principles and beliefs.
“By highlighting the work of 21 inspirational young people, this initiative will do much to break down artificial barriers between faiths, helping us to build stronger communities and showing the world that, when we all stand together, religion can be an important force for good” (News, 2 May).
Among the judges was Jonathan Hellewell, the Prime Minister’s special adviser on communities. He joined a prominent panel which included senior figures from each of the three religions, among them the Revd Michaela Youngson, President of the Methodist Conference; Archbishop Kevin McDonald, inter-faith lead for the Roman Catholic Church; Imams Sheikh Ibrahim Mogra and Sayed Ali Abbas Razawi; and three senior rabbis: Harvey Belovski, Laura Janner-Klausner, and Joseph Dweck.
Another of the judges, Josh Cass from the Faith and Belief Forum, said: “If one were to rely exclusively on what one reads in the papers, one would assume that religion is a malign force in society. The winners of 21 for 21 are the very best refutation of that picture, and are worthy of our admiration and celebration.”
And Sheikh Ibrahim Mogra wrote: “As someone who has been engaged in interfaith work and activities for many years, I realised how much more dynamic and effective the work of these young people is. Reading about their hard work was both humbling and hope filling.”
Everyone considered by the judges was nominated by their peers, often without their knowledge. They will be invited to a reception early in the new year, and it is hoped to bring them together in different forms. A key intention of the organisers was to inspire others by telling their stories.
One of the 21, Mohammed Yahya, a Mozambican-born convert from Christianity to Islam, who works with Muslim and Jewish teenagers through the hip-hop collective formed with a Jewish friend, said that he wanted to “encourage and inspire more people to . . . get to know their neighbours and break [down] barriers”.
Another nominee, Hashim Bhatti, a Conservative counsellor, entrepreneur, and Muslim/interfaith activist, said he wanted to see in Britain “a more collaborative, cohesive” society that could come together to tackle issues such as hate crime and knife culture.
A third, Phil Rosenberg, director of public affairs of the Board of Deputies, said that, as identity became “a more important anchor in our globalised world, I want to make sure we build connections and bridges”, such as links between synagogues, churches and mosques, or schools of different faiths.
“Unity and diversity can happily co-exist,” said a fourth, the Revd Heston Groenewald, Pioneer Minister at All Hallows’, Leeds, who has built strong relations with local Muslim and Hindu leaders, and whose church café attracts customers of all faiths.
“Where we can create a space where people of different faiths can meet each other and become friends — that’s where the seeds of love are sown.”
Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers, community educator for Reform Judaism, and long-time interfaith advocate, who tutors rabbis in training and ordinands in dialogue, is another of the 21. She said this week: “As a society, we are rapidly losing the ability to deal with difference.”
Her vision was that “we concentrate on ensuring that the next generation are given an opportunity to learn how to be self-confident in a way that enables them to engage with difference positively — and that’s simpler than it sounds.”
Some nominees voiced concern at the increasing difficulties around discussing difference. Chinese-born Gunan Shang, who began reaching out to local Muslims through weekly visits to a Somali café with members of his church in Manchester, said: “It’s very important for us to learn how to respect difference in society from the heart, to see that difference is a normal thing and deal with it positively.”
At the same time, Aqeela Malek and Hannah Kaufman, two other nominees, who have pioneered engagement between the faith societies of Nottingham University and the London School of Economics respectively, said getting to know people of different faiths revealed what they had in common.
Ms Kaufman said that participants realised that “there are a lot more similarities than they were expecting.” Ms Malek said: “Even people who don’t have a faith but want to take time out for, say, their mental health — I see that as a similar to me taking a few minutes out for my five daily prayers.”
Other nominees expressed the hope that engagement with people of other faiths would enable people to wear their own faith more confidently at work. Georgia May, programme coordinator at Rose Castle, near Carlisle, said: “My vision is to see a generation of people of faith, young leaders, being raised to be reconcilers and peacemakers and proud that they have a toolkit that their faith gives them.”
A number of the nominees emphasised the important of finding shared causes on which faith groups could work together. Ms May said that scriptural reasoning — reading scripture with people of other faiths — had encouraged conservatives within Islam and Evangelicalism who “might struggle with the word ‘interfaith’ but . . . are deeply rooted in their scripture” to engage without feeling threatened.
Mohammad Ryad Khodabocus, who is the community-relations development officer at the Luton Council of Faiths, said he found fair trade had provided common ground among the town’s faith groups. Katharine Crew, an interfaith organiser at Leeds University, set up women’s breakfasts with the Islamic Society there, and found that those attending shared a frustration at the discrimination that they faced regarding leadership.
Other nominees said that interfaith engagement created space for vital discussions. Ben Reiff, founder of Voices of Israel-Palestine at the LSE, said there that was a “huge gap in the discourse relating to Israel-Palestine”. His group had found itself hosting speakers neither Israel societies nor Palestine societies would touch, such as Palestinians who were in dialogue with Israelis, or left-wing Israelis involved in activities that did not fit the accepted narrative.
You can read profiles of each of the 21 interfaith winners here.
Read our leader comment on 21 for 21