Inter-Faith Week 2011

OFMDFM Junior Ministers Martina Anderson and Jonathan Bell sponsored a panel discussion marking Inter-Faith Week, organised by the Northern Ireland Inter-Faith Forum: “Accommodating faith and diversity in Northern Ireland”.

The panel discussion was chaired by Liam Clarke, and the panellists were: Steven Agnew MLA, Sammy Douglas MLA, Anna Lo MLA, and Conall McDevitt MLA.

Junior Minister Bell gave an introductory speech, expressing his wish that such events become more common. He underlined that people of all faiths or none are part of our community, and that we need to respect and celebrate our differences. Making reference to a reception of Muslims by Reverend Ian Paisley (and making a poor impersonation of the Big Man), Bell said, “You’re among friends now.”

Edwin Graham (Secretary, Northern Ireland Inter-Faith Forum) gave a background of the establishment of the Forum, and how this year is the first concerted effort by them to raise the profile of Inter-Faith Week. Mr Graham also described the three aims of Inter-Faith Week:

  1. Strengthening inter-community relations
  2. Increasing awareness of different and distinct communities in the UK
  3. Increasing understanding between people of religious and non-religious beliefs

Liam Clarke went through a few rounds of questions, such as “What does it mean for us to live together in Northern Ireland?” Overall, he identified some common issues emanating from the panellists’ and audience’s responses:

  • The quality and scope of Religious Education (RE) curriculum in Northern Ireland schools
  • The link of religious identity (Orange Order) and Northern Ireland politics
  • The common basis of morality among religious and non-religious adherents

Some of my notes from the panellists follow; the full audio of the discussion is at the end.

Sammy Douglas MLA believed in the importance of educating one another of our faith backgrounds, particularly as a way of removing ignorance. For him, in the end it was all about building up friendships, through working and getting to know each other.

Conall McDevitt MLA said that living together means moving beyond tolerance to a state of acceptance. He also underlined the significance of good relations having a statutory basis in Northern Ireland, and the need to codify a Bill of Rights.

Anna Lo MLA described the practice by media and political representatives to refer to “the two communities” — ignoring the perspectives of anyone else — and the importance of ensuring that ethnic minorities have equal rights and are treated equally.

On the topic of RE, she told the story of how her son wanted her to write a note so that he could be excused from sitting the RE course, on the basis of his ethnic minority background. Ms Lo refused, telling her son that as he lives in a majority Christian-populated society, it was important for him to learn how they think, lest he be ignorant.

Steven Agnew MLA said that what he works for is a situation whereby we start our face-to-face encounters as people first — fellow human beings — then learn each others’ identity, religious background, etc.

There was more detailed discussion on the dimension of RE in Northern Ireland. I spoke up and said that I saw two main choices: strictly separate church and state as in the USA, with no religious education in public (state) schools; else ensure that the broadest spectrum of religion and non-religious beliefs are included in any curriculum. To me, the dominance of Christianity in RE here is the worst option, falling in between the two.

In response, a member of the Inter-Faith Forum said that they have always wanted to broaden out the RE curriculum beyond the control of the four churches (Catholic, Church of Ireland, Methodist and Presbyterian), but that their efforts have always fallen on deaf ears among politicians. He appealed the panellists, all Northern Ireland legislators, to confer with their respective party colleagues for a more receptive ear in the future. Mr McDevitt, for one, acknowledged the opportunity to revisit the RE curriculum in the development of the Education Skills Authority and the Entitlement Framework.

  • Greenflag

    I take it that atheists were not invited ? Still even an atheist will wish them well in their efforts as they struggle to cope with the semantic terminology , irrational belief systems , and complicated histories that they the various denominations and major religions face in an increasingly secular world .

    While the USA is a very diverse society and has a multiplicity of denominations it’s strictly separate church and state system has served it reasonably well . Those who wish to have their children educated in a ‘religious ‘ environment pay extra for the privilige. I suppose you could call it laissez faire and the law of supply and demand working it’s invisible hand even in the world of religion ? Too capitalist perhaps at this stage for NI or even the Republic .

  • @Greenflag I wouldn’t say that atheists were not invited — the point was to include those of religious belief and of none.

    Re separation of church and state, main motivation in USA was antipathy towards the Church of England etc. during War of Independence — corruption of power between the church and state, ergo desire for complete separation.

    However, this gets debated as US Constitution prohibits “the establishment of a religion” by the state. IMHO this goes too far in prohibiting, say, a Bible reading club on school premises (I don’t see how accommodating multiple religious activities, outside the curriculum, “establishes” a religion.).

    And completely privatising expression of faith, while endorsing freedom, perpetuates ignorance of others.

    In the Republic there is the Educate Together school sector, which is multi-denominational and inclusive of agnostics and atheists; see especially http://www.educatetogether.ie/schools-start-up-groups/faq/

  • Fascinating the elements of profiles/background people leave out or aren’t reported.

    When I knew Sammy Douglas he was a ‘pastor’ at Dunmurry Christian Fellowship (happy clappy) – that doesn’t get mentioned alongside his UDA membership now?

    afaik Edwin Graham hasn’t stopped being a leading Bahá’í since we last met?

    Odd these things aren’t mentioned in the profiles of those promoting ‘inter-faith’ week.

    They do seem just a tiny bit relevant in this context.

  • BluesJazz

    No welcome for one of the fastest growing faiths on the planet?

    http://www.venganza.org/about/

    Be touched by his noodly appendage!

  • @Mark McGregor: I fail to see your point re Douglas’ and Graham’s religious background, in that credence to you for pointing out these two individuals come from different faiths, thus entirely consistent with Inter-Faith Week.

  • BluesJazz

    ‘Faith’ is belief without evidence. Or superstition, or , like astrology, just made up gibberish. Over 99% of people who believe in such nonsense, believe in the ‘faith’ of their parents, who believed….
    Back to Wotan and Zeus. Are ‘classical’ faiths represented at this ‘accomodation’?
    Russell Grant should have hosted the event and then ‘forseen’ that everyone would agree that it was a worthwhile event and there needs to be more of this sort of thing. No invitation to Tony Blair though? Or too high a fee?