Belfast is richly plural: Engage positively with religious diversity by Inderjit Bhogal
When I met with Muslim friends in a Mosque recently we talked about what I find compelling in the story of Jesus Christ, and the numerous references to Jesus in the Quran. It was a respectful and enriching conversation. Such conversations deepen my understanding of Jesus Christ, and my life as a follower of Jesus Christ.
Jesus imagined his followers going “in and out” of different pastures to feed and grow. Good Shepherds ensure that their flocks can move in and out of different pastures for their growth.
The most significant contribution we can make now is to help people to live confidently with religious diversity, to dispel fear of differences, the fear of the “other”, and to learn from each other. The obstacles to this goal include the lack of meaningful interaction between different groups, mistrust and misrepresentation between different groups, and religious illiteracy, including the lack of knowledge and understanding of our own faith, and other peoples’ faiths.
Religious Communities, Schools, Colleges, Universities, the Police, the Social and other Services, and work places are all challenged to consider the implications of religious plurality. Knowledge of different religions grows, not only though books, but through meeting neighbours of different faiths. Such meetings also help us to see that goodness and grace is not just the fruit of one religion, but of all religions. Greater awareness of different religions, and closer relationships among people of different faiths, shows us that God is experienced, adored and responded to throughout the world.
Preachers, Pastors, Politicians, Teachers and all those in positions of leadership have a responsibility to help people to be at ease with difference, to promote hopeful and hospitable living, and to do all in their power to ensure that hatred is made utterly unacceptable and disrespectful, not legitimized.
We need from them resources to help people to engage confidently with religious diversity, and not to fear it, and to meet with people of different faiths for dialogue and mutual learning. One of the privileges of modern living is that people of different faiths live close to each other as neighbours. There is ample opportunity to meet as people of different faiths for conversation, for building relationships of mutual respect and trust, and to work together for the welfare of all. We don’t have to travel far to visit a Mosque, a Sikh Temple, a Buddhist Vihara, a Hindu Mandir, a Jewish Synagogue, or Churches of different Denominations.
What if we could make a positive difference? What are the three things you could contribute? It is more urgent and important than ever before to do all we can to work at creating better understanding of and with each other; develop greater respect and trust of and with each other; come to a point where we really accept each other as human beings. This is an ongoing never ending process we have to commit ourselves to and bring others to. In all this work we have many local resources to assist us, such as the Northern Ireland Inter-Faith Forum, and the Community Relations Council.
Faith is a vital and live issue today. In Northern Ireland as anywhere else, ethnic, cultural and faith diversity is increasingly more complex. According to the 2011 Census 77% of this region’s population say they have links to a faith community. Pluralism is essential to our wellbeing.
While many of us welcome this and respond positively, others feel threatened, as can be seen from the fear of Islam, and the rise of Far Right movements across Europe in the recent elections. Prejudice and discrimination is increasingly about religion and religious identity as well as about race and racial identity. Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia and religious hatred should ring alarm bells in us all. We all have to do all we can to challenge political as well as religious extremism, and racism. We can do this without undermining other people’s traditions of faith. Let us meet each other at our strong points, and grow up.
Rev Dr Inderjit Bhogal OBE
[Former President of the British Methodist Conference and Former Leader of the Corrymeela Community]