Why do people become involved in inter faith encounter and dialogue?

In 1975 about 80 million people, around 1.5% of the world’s population were living outside their country of birth. By the year 2000, 168 million people were living outside their country of birth – some 2.8% of the world’s population.

Britain, which since the Second World War has seen large scale immigration from Asia and the Caribbean as the main example of different models of society and the relationship of majority to minorities. Try, however, to see which model fits the society where you live: Unitary or Plural or Community of communities

For information on religious demographics, go to www.adherents.com/

Below is an extract, addressing this theme, from the lecture Inter Faith Encounter and Dialogue, given by Dr Harriet Crabtree of the Interfaith Network of the UK at the International Association for Religious Freedom Congress in Budapest, Hungary in July 2002. The lecture and accompanying interfaith workshops were organised by the International Interfaith Centre.

Why do people become involved in inter faith encounter and dialogue? Reasons are many. They include, among others:

A desire to work for peace and harmony in one’s society and in the wider world -in some countries and regions, inter religious and inter ethnic conflict make this a very urgent calling
A commitment to ensuring a society that is inclusive and welcoming to all its citizens
A calling to work alongside people of other faiths for social justice issues, such as the ending of poverty
The wish to understand the beliefs and practices of one’s neighbours – or indeed of a spouse or relatives of another faith – and to understand how one’s own religion’s teachings relate to those of others

But now I would like to say a word about contexts because different contexts shape the nature and goals of inter faith encounter and dialogue. For example, in places such as Australia or Belgium economic migration or patterns of refugee settlement have given rise, over recent decades, to more religiously diverse societies. In such countries dialogue and encounter may come about partly as a way of recently settled communities, with different faith traditions, knitting themselves into the fabric of a new land but perhaps also critiquing aspects of it. Dialogue will also be a tool for the wider population to come to know more about and interact with their more recent neighbours.
The nature of dialogue and encounter in every country will be different because their shared histories and concerns are different. In many countries, people of different faiths coexist well and inter faith dialogue will be a gentle pursuit, with unpressured exploration of each other’s traditions. But sometimes difficult histories of colonialism, war, or discrimination are interlinked with the religious pattern of a country and make for tense relations between faiths at times. At the worst extreme, they can contribute to the terrible phenomenon of so-called ethnic/religious cleansing, forcing people of different faiths and ethnicities out of a territory and destroying their places of worship. In difficult circumstances, inter faith organisations can play a vital role in trying to keep open lines of communication between ethnic/religious groups. They also have a role in pressing for equitable legal and social arrangements which allow for a just coexistence of different groups.

Today the world is so interconnected that inter faith relations in most countries are affected strongly by overseas events. All dialogue has a global context. Religious people, most of whose communities have links across the world, feel a particular connection with their brothers and sisters in other countries. When suicide bombers attack in Israel or Israeli tanks roll into the West Bank, Jews and Muslims (and others) elsewhere feel a deep and painful connection. When Hindus and Muslims are killed in Gujarat, their co-religionists in other parts of the world feel a personal link and sense of outrage. When the planes crashed into the Twin Towers last September, Muslims in many countries found themselves affected directly by a backwash of prejudice and suspicion. In Britain, for example, attacks on Muslims in some parts of the country began to happen very swiftly. Among the various highly unpleasant incidents, in Bolton in the North West of England, 20 worshippers, including children, narrowly escaped injury when a petrol bomb was thrown at their mosque. And in South Shields, someone sprayed in 6 foot high letters, “Avenge USA – kill a Muslim now” on a wall near a mosque. According to the Muslim Council of Britain, the extent of the attacks was not as bad as they had originally feared but Muslims have, even so, felt very vulnerable.

As a result of recent tensions around the globe, inter faith dialogue has of late has gained a greater sense of urgency but it has also become much more difficult, particularly in parts of the world where the events in the Middle East and in India are affecting Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and others.