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22 March 2019

THERE are many ways to combat the activities of people like the man accused of carrying out the New Zealand massacre last week: more vigilance, better security, further action against the supremacist traffic online. All these are beyond the ability of ordinary people, and must be left to professionals — albeit with encouragement from the public to give them priority. But one activity in which all can join is closing the gap between the different faiths. Supposedly sympathetic coverage of the mosque attacks spoke of the victims’ “peacefully worshipping their God” (our emphasis), thus continuing subtly to set Muslims apart from a supposed norm, whether that be secular or just possibly Christian. The monotheistic faiths all worship the one God. There are no further qualifications, no particular appropriation. The Muslims in Christchurch were worshipping God, and are mourned as fellow believers.

The rise in Islamophobia has a political, not a religious, root. A ready prejudice against the unknown, combined with cultural defensiveness, is the standard response to newcomers into a community. Those who seek to practise Christian hospitality are the least susceptible to these impulses, thanks to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. It is not enough, however, merely to greet those of other faiths with a passive benignity. The degree of hostility which exists elsewhere requires a more active coming together. The C of E’s Presence and Engagement project, now more than a decade old, provides resources for such comings together. It even has a short paper, “Actions in times of tension”, which draws on experiences after the Paris attacks in 2015, and makes suggestions about vigils and joint services. There is much to learn about relations with people of other faiths, but there are plenty who are willing to teach what they have discovered. The point is that relationships should be forged at times of peace and openness, although it is true that a crisis can bring people together, even if that was not the intention of those who provoked it.

It is inevitable that adherents to the different faiths are most comfortable in their own milieu. A lifetime is nowhere near enough for exploring one’s own tradition; and there is enough divergence within each religion without seeking greater divergence from without. But encounters with others believers, of whatever faith, can be a great blessing, prompting the faithful to examine their faith from a fresh perspective and, almost inevitably, revealing degrees of convergence where only divergence was expected. As the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote in these pages earlier this month: “We can be born afresh in our faith, and gain a deeper understanding of our own traition, when we converse with the religious other.” With contact comes understanding, and with understanding comes friendship. And friendship is the greatest weapon in the fight against the ignorant hatred that fuels acts such as those in Christchurch last week.

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