Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 16 September 2014

A leap of faith will help us over religion barrier

Alliance MLA Anna Lo

In Leicester, they are marking Inter-Faith week with a football match between Imams and Christian clergy, while in Huddersfield, you could have your choice of classes in Jewish circle dancing or Arabic calligraphy.

More than 400 events were held in England and Wales to show this is Inter-Faith week - in Northern Ireland there were two. One is held tonight at Craigavon Hospital, where Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, humanists and members of the Baha'i faith will hold a joint service.

The other event was held in Stormont last Monday evening, when I chaired a panel discussion of MLAs in front of an audience drawn from a similar mix of belief systems.

Jonathan Bell - the DUP junior minister - opened proceedings on behalf of OFMDFM. He said: "We cannot ignore the fact that in Northern Ireland, our own personal beliefs make up just a tiny part of the global diversity of cultures and religions."

Yet we do ignore it. The focus on reconciling indigenous religious and political traditions often squeezes out consideration of people who are not Christian - or instinctively unionist or nationalist. They are floating voters, waiting to be convinced, and their numbers are growing.

Education is a case in point, and after the pleasantries, it emerged as the big issue. Agreement on the Education and Skills Authority, a single body to oversee our schools, was a big achievement for the Executive last week.

Everyone was so relieved that few noticed it entrenched the position of the Christian churches without giving any input for other belief systems.

Christian church representatives make up 40% of the proposed ESA board, another 40% will be politicians and 20% are appointed by the minister.

This sort of carve up permeates the draft proposal, although details can be tweaked as the Bill works its way through the Assembly. Unlike England and Wales, our Religious Education classes set out to transmit Christian faith and are not subject to inspection. Ethnic minorities can opt out, but it is embarrassing for children to be set apart in this way.

There were suggestions that RE should teach us about religion in a non-judgmental way to break down barriers of misunderstanding about beliefs and practices.

The MLAs on the panel were Sammy Douglas (DUP), Conall McDevitt (SDLP), Anna Lo (Alliance) and Steven Agnew of the Greens. They all promised to do what they could. No one expects miracles, but RE could be looked at in the legislation. John O'Dowd, the Education Minister, could also appoint a few inter-faith members to the board of ESA.

Anna Lo, who was raised a Taoist and is our only non-Christian MLA, might also be one of the political representatives.

Without such voices, this is an issue which could be missed and a new divide could grow up. We know the turmoil that ensued when misunderstanding blossomed into bigotry and hatred.

With the inter-faith community, we have people who want to understand our culture and be understood too - that gives us a chance to get it right this time.

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