This year has been filled with uncertainty as the world has grappled with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, but one constant has remained with communities pulling together and supporting each other.
There has been talk of divided communities with worrying increases of hate crime, tensions about lockdown and abhorrent acts of terror in the name of faith in our neighbouring countries. Places of worship have been restricted and religious festivals such as Eid ul-Fitr, Rosh Hashanah, Diwali and amongst others have not been celebrated as they would have.
As a faith leader while concerned about these tensions and frustrations, I am extremely humbled to see how communities have pulled together in a way that rarely makes the headlines during times of heightened fear and uncertainty. Interfaith week is the perfect time to exemplify exactly what communities are doing and have done to support one another during what has been a different and unique year for all. Challenges that have been overcome and stronger bonds have been made.
During the early stages of the first national lockdown, we saw an issue arise surrounding burials for the Muslim and Jewish communities. I was witness to two prominent faiths coming together to overturn a mandate to only cremate loved ones, a tradition not practiced by both faiths. This only happened because of the way faith leaders and community advocates worked together with politicians over a shared common value. More recently, we have seen faith communities push back on communal prayer restrictions, with the Catholic church standing up for and with other faith traditions, highlighting it as an integral part of service that provides a sense of belonging during difficult and lonely times.
However, the interfaith support has not just been on a national level. As a faith leader, I am most proud of grassroots encouragement and support. I was a part of an online panel discussion at St. Georges Church with the Rabbi Jason Kleiman and Lay Minister David Kibble, talking to local community members discussing the importance of tackling intolerance and hatred and exploring the ongoing anti-Semitism and Islamophobia that still prevails in our multi-cultural society. The livestream joined by hundreds helped a variety of faith communities to understand how to challenge hateful rhetoric and stand up for one another, despite their differences. This weekend I am speaking at All Hallows Church in Leeds with Rabbi Paul Strasko and Rev. Heston Groenewald to talk about the role of faith in inspiring hope and confidence, talking to communities about how to adapt as we approach the end of a challenging year.
It is exactly this heartening community spirit and uplifting ethos that needs to be shouted about from the roof tops. We are all more united than we might think and read about. This is what should make headlines and be the first thing we see when we open our news feed. Spreading such positivity and collective unity I’m sure will be comforting and refreshing for us all.
We must also remind ourselves of how faiths have united against intolerance and hatred, incited by divisive groups that seek to exploit us in these vulnerable times. We saw on social media historical footage of open mosques being used to support claims that Muslims were violating lockdowns and that cases of coronavirus would increase during Ramadan. Even in these most extreme instances, all faiths and none, stood together against destructive narratives.
It is this inbuilt strength and will of the British people that we must use to our advantage, to promote cohesion and respect for our differences. The barbaric and gruesome acts of violence we have witnessed in France, Vienna, Afghanistan and Mozambique recently, can never be justified in the name of Islam or any religion and such cowardice further taints our peaceful religion, increasing hostility towards Muslims globally. We must all value and defend freedom of expression and belief but at the same time, respectfully help those who may not hold the same beliefs as us to understand the deep hurt we may feel when we perceive our faith to be undermined. As the late Rabbi Sacks eloquently said: “Freedom is won by making space for the people not like us.” Interfaith week reminds us that stepping away from division can be as simple as talking to your next-door neighbour, who may be a different religion, race, or ethnicity.
It is then our responsibility as neighbours, faith leaders, activists, politicians, journalists, and communities to ensure we take the right steps towards acceptance of those who are different from us – whether in terms of their views, lifestyle, belief or race. We must celebrate and promote that which binds us together, but equally challenge and debate the issues that may lead to division. That is why Interfaith week this year is more important than ever, in helping us all continue to strive to achieve a more inclusive and stronger society.