Since World War II there have been tremendous changes in Britain's demography. Society has become more multiracial, multilingual, multicultural and multireligious. This is particularly true for the big cities. The increasing influx of refugees from conflict areas such as Somalia, Bosnia, Sudan, Rwanda, Afghanistan and, presently, Kosovo, has stretched the resources of the state and of the welfare sector; it also causes tensions between the host population and the new arrivals.
The laws on racial and gender equality are more than twenty years old. There is, however, recent legislation against discrimination of pupils from those backgrounds and it guarantees equal opportunity for access to services and employment. Sikhs and Jews are considered ethnic minority communities and are therefore protected by the race relations legislation, but the new law does not cover religious discrimination. The recent investigation into the stabbing of Stephen Lawrence has shown that there is still much discrimination and a big gap between policy and practice.
I already wrote before in Current Dialogue about some of the initiatives that began in the UK and which helped to put the interfaith movement onto a global map. The World Congress of Faiths (WCF), the World Conference on Religion and Peace, the International Interfaith Centre (ICC) all have an international basis and membership but operate from the UK. The ICC has been involved in developing programmes which combine international interfaith dialogue, academic research, information sharing, networking and community building. It has developed particular expertise in facilitating dialogue between people who may find that difficult when in situations of conflict, especially when religious communities are implicated. Beginning in March 1997, conferences were given in Oxford and Ireland on the theme "Religion, Community and Conflict." Thus opportunities were afforded for members of communities in conflict to come together in a supportive and friendly atmosphere and to share concerns. Dialogue continues and links are maintained and built upon for peace-building. The ICC and the WCF collaborated on a recent publication, Testing the Global Ethic. While it is acknowledged that religious differences may aggravate conflicts, there is hope that the moral values shared by people of faith can provide a basis for communities and nations to live together in peace and harmony. The WCF's recent publication All in Good Faith is another initiative in this sense, namely, a resource book for multifaith prayer.
The Interfaith Network for the UK, on the other hand, "works to build good relations between the communities of all the major faiths in Britain: Baha'i, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, and Zoroastrian." It is a link between more than 80 member bodies "to help make Britain a country marked by mutual understanding and respect between religions where all can practise their faith with integrity." There are four types of member organizations: faith community representative bodies, national interfaith organizations, local interfaith groups, educational and academic bodies. The Network conducts its work on the principle that "dialogue and co-operation can only prosper if they are rooted in respectful relationship which do not blur or undermine the distinctiveness of different religious traditions."
During its ten year history the Network has become a much respected organization. It can count on the complete loyalty and support of its member organizations, and also entertains fruitful links with government departments and other national or local bodies. The present archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. George Carey, has paid it the ultimate compliment when he said, "There is no other organization which provides such a trusted forum of exchange between all the main faith communities in the United Kingdom. We must do all we can to ensure its future, since the task of building bridges between these faith communities can only become increasingly important."
Its publications are excellent resources for building interfaith awareness and understanding, particularly Building Good Relations with People of Different Faiths and Beliefs, and Religions in the UK: A Multi-Faith Directory (in collaboration with the University of Derby, which, incidentally, has set up a Multi Faith Net).
At government level, the Inner City Religious Council, formed in 1992 and re-launched in July 1997, provides a forum for government and faith communities to work together on issues facing inner cities and deprived urban areas. Its membership is drawn from faith communities having a substantial presence in these areas, namely Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh. The Council plays an important role in the dialogue with the government about developing policies that affect disadvantaged urban communities. Members are encouraged to offer skills and partnership to the government for tackling issues such as religious discrimination, unemployment, rehabilitation, youth matters and health.
At the local level, there are numerous initiatives taking up particular issues within a locality. For example, consideration has been given to establishing a multifaith chaplaincy team with opportunities for multifaith services, where possible.
Bilateral dialogues are being conducted between Sikhs and Christians in the UK and four conferences have been given, exploring issues of commonality and difference. One result of these meetings was to continue Scripture studies in West London. Whenever possible, small groups of Sikhs and Christians meet to study passages from Sri Guru Granth Sahib or the Bible, to learn from each other while respecting each other's commitment to their own faith. It is difficult at times, but the trust built up over the years is such that there is now a unique bonding as God's people together, yet diverse. In this testimony, I have tried to give a little flavor of how religion can be a vehicle for peacemaking rather than an instrument of division and conflict. Baba Farid says in Guru Granth Sahib:
Do not speak in a way that causes hurtHe further says, that to stop creating conflict, we should do the following:
The true God resides in all
Do not break another's heart
For all humans are precious.
Those who hit you with fistsReligion can be a wonderful path to resolving conflict, provided its teachings about humility, compassion, forgiveness and respect for the individual and communities are fostered by listening and speaking to each other in a spirit of openness.
Do not box them down
Go to their homes
And kiss their feet.
Charanjit AjitSingh, a Sikh, is a lecturer and writer on Sikhism.