By Christopher Lamb
A pandemic, places of worship closed, scandals and civil unrest: 2020 was non-stop religious affairs stories, from the presidential election in the United States and the George Floyd protests to surviving lockdown and Uyghur Muslims’ plight in China.
The next 12 months are likely to see the role of faith having a huge impact on public debate and wider culture in many ways.
Here are four religion stories to look out for in 2021.
Pandemic of poverty
The next 12 months will see a range of religious groups on the front line helping those who have fallen into poverty or who have lost their job because of the pandemic. The work of priests Mick Fleming and Alex Frost in Burnley highlighted how people are going hungry and struggling to pay for gas and electricity.
During the first UK lockdown, a Sikh temple in Slough turned itself into an emergency food operation by delivering thousands of meals to NHS workers and those in need. The Sikh community has also been hand to provide 800 meals to lorry drivers stranded in Dover when the UK-France border was shut.
As the economic pain caused by the Covid-19 restrictions starts to deepen, expect faith groups to speak out for the poorest in society, while also stepping up to help those left at the bottom of the pile.
Covid-19 has also hit faith groups hard financially. This is hardest for the smaller religious communities in the UK and Europe who have little in cash reserves and rely for their income upon who turns up to worship. In Germany, for example, mosques do not benefit from the church tax, which gives Christian denominations a healthy income. In Britain, both mosques and Sikh gurdwaras have suffered, with both reporting a massive decline in revenue. Churches are also struggling and have started to cut costs and lay off staff. Westminster Abbey is facing a £12m shortfall.
The government is likely to come under pressure to come up with a special package to help places of worship over the coming year.
A new government faith office?
By the summer of 2021, Colin Bloom, the government’s faith engagement adviser, is expected to submit his recommendations on how Whitehall can work better with religious communities.
He is expected to recommend the creation of an office for faith engagement, to help oversee all the interaction both between government and religion and between faiths. An all-party parliamentary group has already pushed the idea of a faiths commissioner to help with this work.
Given the frontline work of faith groups in tackling poverty, there is also a possibility that the government might look to churches, mosques, synagogues and temples to help in the aftermath of the pandemic. In September, Danny Kruger, the MP for Devizes, submitted proposals to Boris Johnson on “levelling up our communities” which encompassed the contribution of faith groups. He argued that the “government should invite the country’s faith leaders to make a grand offer of help on behalf of their communities, in exchange for a reciprocal commitment from the state”.
Mr Bloom is also tipped to make proposals on ensuring government officials are more religiously literate, and how to tackle any cultures and practices that are harmful in religion.
2021 will see Fiona Bruce, MP for Congleton in Cheshire, the government’s new special envoy on freedom of religion or belief, start work. She has indicated that she will be speaking up for Uyghur Muslims in China, Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, Yazidis in Iraq and persecuted Christians across the world.
Pope Francis in Iraq
On 5-8 March, the Pope is due to travel to Iraq, the first time a Pope has visited the country. The 84-year-old Pontiff’s trip will offer solidarity to the beleaguered and ancient Christian community in Iraq. Since the 2003 Iraq War, the number of Christians in the country has dropped from 1.5 million to 250,000.
Iraq is the land of Abraham, and Francis’s trip is also likely to highlight inter-faith co-operation, a consistent theme of his pontificate. The Pope has refused to indulge a “clash of civilisations” narrative between Christians and Muslims. He has worked with other Islamic leaders to denounce terrorism and look to find ways to solve conflicts.
If the March visit goes ahead, it will be the Pope’s first trip abroad since the Covid-19 pandemic that has grounded Francis in the Vatican since early this year.
President Joe Biden
The second Catholic president in US history will take his oath of office on 20 January. Biden is a practising Catholic and often draws on the resources of his faith during political speeches. After the electoral college confirmed his victory over Donald Trump, Biden gave a speech citing scripture and the prayer of St Francis, saying: “For where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith, where there is darkness, light.”
But the new president is facing criticism from inside his church for supporting legal abortion. Before he set foot in the White House, the US bishops put him under investigation by establishing a working group to examine Biden’s position on abortion rights. During 2021, we can expect the Biden presidency not only to highlight the battles inside the Roman Catholic Church, but also the wider culture war in the US.
Meanwhile, the president has a good channel of communication with Pope Francis, who never saw eye to eye with Trump. The outgoing president withdrew the US from the Paris climate change agreement just days after meeting the Pope in the Vatican in May 2017. At the end of that meeting, he asked Trump to read Laudato si’, his encyclical on climate change.
Biden says the US will soon rejoin the Paris climate accord, and in a speech on 19 December speech, Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris, quoted from Laudato si’ saying: “Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home.”
As 2021 begins, religion is unlikely to be far from the headlines.