I am delighted to be here to celebrate interfaith week and I am very grateful to Bishop Tony for inviting me.
For many decades I have called not just for interfaith dialogue but for interfaith action.
It’s no good the local vicar and local imam just sharing a cuppa and a samosa.
Different faiths need to come together, work together and together make a difference to their communities.
I believe that over the last few years we have seen a shift from interfaith dialogue to interfaith action.
To encourage that, we have ensured our faith-based programmes in government are interfaith programmes.
And they don’t just bring communities together for the sake of bringing them together; they bring them together to make a difference.
Programmes like the Big Iftar…
…which encourages mosques and community centres to open their doors and break their fast with different communities during Ramadan.
Like Near Neighbours…
…which gives grants to grassroots projects of many different faiths in the areas which need it most.
And like the First World War Commonwealth Contribution programme
…which shines a spotlight on those Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and others who fought and fell, side by side, a hundred years ago.
I have often argued that the presence of another faith is not a threat to your own identity.
It shows that you are unshakeable in your identity.
Working alongside someone of a different faith doesn’t make you less of a Muslim, a Christian or a Jew.
It actually makes you more of one.
It’s something I believe we do very well in this country. And I think we can do it even better.
DEFEATING BIGOTRY AT HOME
I believe this sort of interfaith action is more important than ever.
It is particularly crucial if we are to defeat the bigotry levelled at faith communities in this country.
And even more vital if we are to stamp out the persecution suffered by religious minorities around our world.
Let’s look first at Britain.
I had an interesting interfaith week experience this week in the House of Lords.
Lord Pearson of UKIP asked the basis for the Prime Minister’s statement that ‘there is nothing in Islam which justifies acts of terror’.
What this question was implying, not very subtly, was that Islam does justify terrorism.
But it wasn’t just Muslim colleagues who came to tell Lord Pearson how wrong he was.
It was peers of all faiths.
In fact, the most stinging attacks came from a man of Church, the Bishop of Birmingham, and a peer of Jewish background, Lord Triesman.
In that debate, we were all – well, all except Lord Pearson – singing from the same hymn sheet.
Saying there is nothing within our faiths that justifies terrorism.
And that to hold coreligionists responsible for the actions of a minority…
…a minority who hijack and betray a faith…
…and to suggest that coreligionists should become apologists for this evil minority…
…is simply not unacceptable.
TACKLING PERSECUTION ABROAD
And this cross-faith approach, as I argued during a speech in Washington last week, is vital if we are to tackle the persecution of religious minorities abroad.
I used that speech to highlight the plight of Christians.
In various parts of the world they are discriminated against, driven out, or even murdered simply because of their faith.
They are like other minorities which have been persecuted for years.
They need protection from the states, the militant groups, the individuals, which single them out.
We need an international response to what has become a global crisis.
But it shouldn’t just be Christians speaking up for Christians.
Muslims for Muslims.
Or any faith for its co-religionists.
It requires everyone to speak our against intolerance and injustice.
And to speak up for those who come under attack.
If our response is sectarian then that actually reinforces the divisions.
So a bomb going off in a Pakistani church shouldn’t just reverberate through Christian communities; it should stir the world.
We should be inspired by the teachings of Islam, which tell us your fellow man is your brother – either your brother in faith, or your brother in humanity.
And we should be guided by the example of the Good Samaritan, who wouldn’t have stopped to question the faith of the robbed, beaten man before he helped him.
After all, we have only defeated intolerance in the past when we have all come together, whatever the cause.
Apartheid was defeated when the whole world realised the terrible injustice that was taking place in South Africa.
The American Civil Rights movement received the boost it needed when the international community, black, white and brown, got behind the cause.
Gay rights in the UK were truly established once the wider community got on board.
For me there is great hope, and that hope stems from the goodwill of ordinary people.
NO CLASH OF FAITHS
There is nothing in our respective religions that precludes us from working together.
People will cite divisive or aggressive passages from the Quran and the Bible.
They will say look: you cannot coexist.
But they will forget that the holy books must be taken in context.
And that the teachings and histories of these faiths actually demonstrate that conflict is not inevitable.
One of my earliest introductions to the concept of interfaith was the Constitution of Medina.
This was a formal agreement between the Prophet and all the local tribes, including Muslims, Jews, Christians and pagans.
It instituted a number of rights for all these people – collectively known as the ummah.
It showed me that interfaith work was being woven into my faith even before my faith was born.
As the anthropologist James Benthall says:
“Islam has proved to be just as flexible as Christianity in accommodating popular forms of belief and practice.”
Many people would do well to remember that.
Those who want Islam to be seen as monolithic and rejecting of non-Muslims.
Or those, like Lord Pearson, who want to portray Islam as closed off to all other faiths.
Leadership is very important in encouraging this approach.
When there was a horrific spate of attacks against Muslim communities in Britain, one of the leading opponents of such hatred was not a Muslim but a Christian:
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.
He assured British Muslims:
“We want you to know that we stand with you, we will do so privately and publicly. We will do so persistently and I pray in the grace of God, persuasively.
“We will do all we can to support the security forces, the police, in bringing to justice those who seek to spread hate and cause division in our community.”
When the scale of Christian persecution around the world was coming to light, one of the biggest voices was not a Christian but a Jew:
Former Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks.
He said: I think this is a human tragedy that is going almost unremarked. I don’t know what the name for this is, it is the religious equivalent of ethnic cleansing.”
“This is a story that is crying out for a public voice, and I have not heard an adequate public voice,” he added.
But of course his voice, and more like it, whatever their faith, are just what is needed.
Sot my point today is very clear:
Interfaith dialogue needs to become interfaith action.
And that cooperation is crucial if we are to defeat intolerance at home…
…and speak out effectively about persecution abroad.
Whether your symbol is the cross or the crescent.
Whichever name you give the God you pray to.
It is your duty to speak out for and work alongside everyone:
Whether they are your brother in faith, or your brother in humanity.