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Inter Faith Network closure a loss to the nation, says Archbishop of York

26 February 2024

Alamy

Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, speaking in London earlier this month

Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, speaking in London earlier this month

THE withdrawal of government funding from the Inter Faith Network (IFN), which has forced its closure, is a “matter of great regret”, the Archbishop of York has said.

The board of the IFN announced in a statement on Thursday that the charity would close, after it received a further letter from the Communities Secretary, Michael Gove, dated 21 February, confirming that a previous funding offer of £155,000 from the Government was being withdrawn, despite appeals for it to be honoured.

Archbishop Cottrell said in a statement on Friday that the closure was a “sad day for the whole nation”. The work of the IFN had “helped to bind diverse communities together for many years”, he said.

The IFN had announced the possibility of closure earlier this month after previous correspondence with Mr Gove about the withdrawal (News, 16 February). In his latest letter, Mr Gove repeated that the decision had been taken because a member of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) was made an IFN trustee.

The Government has not engaged with the MCB since a former member appeared to condone attacks on the British Navy in 2009.

Mr Gove wrote: “Whilst I recognise that the MCB was already a member of the Inter Faith Network when the previous offer of funding was made, I find their membership regrettable and it is deeply concerning that an MCB member could be appointed into your core governance structure.

“This increases the proximity between government funding and an organisation (the MCB) with which the Government has a long-standing policy of non-engagement. This is even more important in the case of funding for a prominent and nationally active organisation such as the IFN, which would carry too great a risk of compromising the credibility and effectiveness of that policy.”

The IFN has said that it had not been asked to proscribe membership of any individual, nor had it previously been advised by the department to expel any MCB members because of the Government’s policy of non-engagement.

The co-chairs of the IFN said on Thursday: “It is not easy to see how IFN’s purpose (the value of which it has always been believed the Government appreciates) could be achieved by sowing division.” Division would be inevitable, they said, if the IFN expelled a trustee without cause — such as being found guilty of illegal actions, or bringing reputational damage.

The MCB represented more than 500 national, regional, and local Muslim organisations, mosques, charities, and schools, the co-chairs said, therefore: “Although the Government can choose not to engage with it, that is not a sensible option open to the IFN if it is to achieve the purposes for which the Government funds it in the first place.”

The IFN has been preparing for closure since the Government refused to confirm whether the money promised last July — which covers the charity’s operating costs until March 2024 — would be paid.

In a statement, IFN trustees said: “Neither the careful and considered response of IFN’s board, nor the widespread support and concern at the potential loss of the Inter Faith Network for the UK, have led Mr Gove to reconsider his position

“Therefore, the organisation is now on the path to closure, and IFN trustees and staff will be working to bring the organisation’s work to a close and to preserve its legacy in ways that enable others to build strongly on that in the future.”

Archbishop Cottrell said: “The IFN has been the umbrella organisation for nearly four decades, supporting local interfaith groups, the national Faith Forum, and the meeting of faith communities across the devolved nations. It has done a huge amount of work with academic institutions to promote religious literacy across the UK. . . This is a sad day for the whole nation.”

During an urgent question on the funding withdrawal in the House of Lords, last week, the Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, said: “The optics of this are not good. . . Surely in our society we want to encourage dialogue, even with those organisations that may express some views with which we disagree. To not be willing to engage at all with an organisation that has not been proscribed goes against all the efforts being made to bring our society together.”

Responding on behalf of the Government, Baroness Scott said that there were “many positive examples of thriving initiatives that bring people together” that did not “require us to use taxpayers’ money in a way that legitimises the influence of organisations such as the MCB”.

A petition urging Mr Gove to maintain the funding has gathered more than 2400 signatures since it was created last week. It was due to be delivered to Downing Street at lunchtime on Monday by a group which included the Bishop of Dudley, the Rt Revd Martin Gorick, and Rabbi Alexandra Wright, who said that she was “disturbed and mystified” by the Government’s decision. 

“Over the past few days [I] have been appalled by the prospect that the IFN is going to have to close. I do not understand the logic of bringing 40 years of the IFN’s work to a close, unless it is to further polarise different religious groupings in this country and drive a sword of hostility between us.”

 

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