We live in a time of confusion and fear about religion. Europe has suffered a series of terrorist attacks, and there is no end in sight to the violence in the Middle East. These atrocities will cause many people to ask what faith can possibly offer our society.
Some might conclude that religion is the problem. A relic of the past and an obstacle to progress we’d be better off without. But to think that way hands victory to the terrorists, because it leaves their narrative of hatred unchallenged.
Increasing religious understanding and respect is more urgent than ever, and should not be neglected. It requires celebrating the good work of people of all faiths, and recognising their enormous contribution to communities across the country.
Last week I saw this for myself. Within 8 hours I visited 8 places of worship in London: Jain, Hindu and Zoroastrian temples; a mosque, a Catholic and Church of England church, a synagogue and the Buddhist Society.
The purpose of this “faith tour” was not simply to set my officials an interesting logistical challenge; it was to show that within hours you can visit places of worship representing our largest religions, through to our smaller faiths, and see how they are all making a huge contribution to our communities.
I was inspired by what I saw. Seeing so many people come together – who want to learn, debate, and serve their community – shows that there is a real appetite for faith to be a core part of public life. As Minister for Faith my job is to ensure they have the Government’s support.
In the past, Governments have been reluctant to talk about faith; treating it instead as a purely personal characteristic. The problem with this approach is that it misunderstands how faith motivates and sustains people to challenge injustice, protect the vulnerable, and serve their communities.
William Wilberforce, a man of faith and the driving force behind the abolition of the slave trade, said “let everyone regulate his conduct … by the golden rule of doing to others as in similar circumstances we would have them do to us, and the path of duty will be clear before him.”
We’re promoting this path of duty, by supporting practical co-operation between faith groups. It is about people from different backgrounds coming together: not just sitting around talking, but working together for the common good and tackling shared social problems.
It is in this spirit that we launched our Near Neighbours programme. Since its launch in 2011, more than 1,100 projects have been established, benefiting 1 million people in some of England’s most diverse faith communities, including over 50% of projects offering new skills to the unemployed.
Now, visiting these 8 places of worship confirmed how much faith can contribute to our society. But if my faith tour was inspiring, it also had sombre moments.
At Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Acton I paid my respect to Father Jacque Hamel, the priest murdered during mass, and at Hampstead Synagogue I heard about the security measures that have to be taken in the Jewish Community.
On the same day the Community Security Trust revealed the first 6 months of the year saw the second highest level of antisemitic incidents ever recorded.
The Government is providing more than £13.4m to ensure the security of Jewish faith schools, synagogues and communal buildings, but we also want to create an environment that prevents antisemitic hate crime from happening in the first place.
My department is investing £1m in new projects to help prevent hate crime in our schools and playgrounds. This is part of the wider 4-year Hate Crime Action Plan, which will tackle all forms of hate crime by boosting reporting, protecting victims and targeting perpetrators with tougher sentencing.
We are greatly enriched by the diversity of faiths that call our country home and as part of my tour day I saw first-hand how faith groups are playing a full role in public life. Our faith communities are open and welcoming and making a real difference on the ground. This is something that we should all celebrate.