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Improving Interfaith Dialogue in Multicultural Britain

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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, for initiating this important and necessary debate. I go back to words said by an expert on the subject 2,600 years ago. His name was Jeremiah and he became known as a prophet of gloom. Were he to return to life today, doubtless he would be an economist. He was the first person to analyse the situation many find themselves in today of being a minority in a culture whose beliefs are not their own.

Jeremiah wrote a letter to the Jewish exiles in Babylon in which he said:

“Seek the welfare of the city to which you have gone and pray to God on its behalf, for in its peace and prosperity you will find peace and prosperity”.

He told them in effect: “Maintain your identity while contributing to the common good. Be true to your faith while being a blessing to others regardless of their faith”. That is the challenge today. The good news about religion is that it creates communities based on altruism and trust. It teaches people to make sacrifices for the sake of others. It builds social capital. The bad news is that every community divides as it unites, because for every “us” there is a “them”-the people not like us.

The best way to improve interfaith dialogue in multicultural Britain is to create a sense of national identity so strong that it brings different ethnic and religious communities together in pursuit of the common good-not just the good for “my” group, but the good for all of us together. A nation should respect its faiths, and faiths should respect the nation. That is the only way we will achieve integrated diversity and the dignity of difference, in which we see our differences as contributions that we bring to the common good.

In yesterday’s Times, Daniel Finkelstein wrote a moving tribute to his late father, who came to Britain as a Jewish refugee in World War II. He wrote:

“He lived here proud of the nation that let him live, let him learn, let him teach, let him practise his religion. And ultimately let him die in bed, loved by his family”.

That is what Britain means to us in the Jewish community, and surely to the vast majority in all our faith communities. It is vital that we teach all our children, whether in faith schools or not, to honour this country, respect its traditions, contribute to its welfare and show the same respect to others as we ask others to show to us.

Therefore I have a simple proposal. I believe that all Britain’s faith communities should be invited to make a voluntary covenant with Britain articulating our responsibilities to others and to the nation as a whole, so that we can be true to our faith while being a blessing to others regardless of theirs.”