Thursday, June 02, 2011

UK: Taking Christian-Muslim relations in the UK to the next level

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews)
Copyright permission is granted for publication

Taking Christian-Muslim relations in the UK to the next level

by Reverend Dr. Richard Cheetham

In London, where I live, scarcely a day goes by without some media interest in relations between Muslims and Christians. Usually the coverage is negative and often implies that religion is a constant and inevitable source of conflict. The recent clashes between Muslims and Coptic Christians in Cairo which have left several dead and many injured, for example, have been widely reported in the British press.

There have been many statements of condemnation of these atrocities from Muslims and Christians alike, but unfortunately in such cases words are not enough. We need to do far more to redress a deeply damaging situation and some misrepresentations of both Christianity and Islam. In order to address this need in England, the Christian Muslim Forum was created five years ago after an initiative by the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to increase understanding and to find ways that Muslims and Christians can live together with faith.

Around half of the world’s population align themselves with either Christianity or Islam. Many people are deeply disturbed at the role of religion in public life and its capacity for good and ill. The recent British Social Attitudes survey revealed a deep rooted Islamophobia in the UK. Over one third of those interviewed described themselves as ”cool” in their feelings towards Muslims; over a half would be bothered if a large mosque were to be built in their area. Conversely, there is considerable concern in the UK that in some Middle Eastern countries the Christian minorities feel threatened and are sometimes persecuted.

Over the years the Christian Muslim Forum has developed a remarkable programme of effective events for clergy, imams and other religious leaders, as well as for young people and many others, both at grassroots and national levels. For example, there have been events for teachers looking at Christian and Muslim perspectives on education and addressing the controversial issue of faith schools. We also work actively to encourage “twinning” between local churches and mosques, a campaign to build grassroots dialogue between Christians and Muslims in the country.

One particular grassroots event brought together Christian and Muslim youth in Birmingham in order to foster positive relationships and break down some of the misunderstandings and caricatures of each other’s faith which can so easily arise, such as the widely held misperceptions that jihad only means violent struggle, or that Christianity is essentially a Western religion when, in fact, it has roots in the Middle East. In a short film summarising the event, one of the Muslim participants said, “We tried to encapsulate the experience and give a message to other people out there that would encourage more of these events and wipe away the psychological barriers that we all have about meeting people who are very different from ourselves.”

One of the young Christians at the event said, “I didn’t realise that I’d actually [so much] in common with Muslims.” Following the success of these events, we developed a website with ideas for Christian and Muslim youth leaders hosting joint events.

It is precisely these kinds of activities that the Christian Muslim Forum organises for the good of the community. The Forum has no less than eight presidents – four Christian and four Muslim – in order to try to represent the broadest range of the Christian Churches in England and the Muslim community in all their variety. There are six pairs of ”specialists” who focus on youth, education or family life, and who offer support and guidance for Muslim or Christian marriages, including a group that meets regularly in Oxford to share their interfaith experiences. All are experts in their field and give their time voluntarily.

Many of the issues we face are very complex and we are also helped by some scholar consultants, both Muslim and Christian. The Archbishop of Canterbury continues to take an active interest in his role as Founding Patron, and there is now a Muslim Patron – Mauluna Shahid Raza – also, who oversees the training of imams at London’s Muslim College.

The Christian Muslim Forum continues to grow in an effort to provide the best way of helping create better understanding between Christians and Muslims. We do so in the belief that this is of great importance in our time. And we encourage all to be involved and not to be at the whim of sensationalist reporting. It is our belief that face-to-face conversations and dialogue do much to break down the negative stereotypes and misunderstanding that are so prevalent in today’s world.

The Right Reverend Dr. Richard Cheetham is Bishop of Kingston and Co-Chair of the Christian Muslim Forum. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).