By Catherine Pepinster
Interfaith Week proved to be a testing time this year, according to participants, as it was overshadowed by the Israel-Gaza conflict.
Some Jewish people, already worried about their safety in Britain, found the situation was, according to one rabbi, “heartbreaking”.
The week, which begins each year on Remembrance Sunday, aims to strengthen interfaith relations at all levels and to increase awareness of the different and distinct faith communities in the UK.
Last year the Inter Faith Network, one of the main organisers of the week, recorded more than 600 events, from walks and shared meals to discussions and shared services. This year the number of events listed on its calendar was lower, though organisers say the total cannot be calculated for some time.
Its executive director, Harriet Crabtree, said people had taken some time to report on local events. The numbers which, at the start of Interfaith Week, were markedly low at 285 events on the calendar, rose by more than another 200 by the end of the week.
She said: “Anecdotal evidence ahead of the week suggested a few organisations wrestling with whether this was the right time to hold an interfaith event and a slight drop in activity numbers is possible.
“There were a handful of cancellations, and security considerations were taken into account by synagogues and mosques in the context of the recent spike in antisemitic incidents and anti-Muslim incidents reported by the Community Security Trust and Tell Mama.
“A number of activity holders said that they thought it more important than ever to come together at this time.”
Among the events most affected by concerns about the war in the Middle East, were those that mark Mitzvah Day, a Jewish-initiated social action enterprise. In previous years, people of different faiths have come together to engage in voluntary service, but its founder Laura Marks has noted a difference.
“There has been greater reluctance this year by Muslim communities and they are quietly not joining in,” she said. “It has been difficult for some Muslims, even in previous times, to be seen working with Jewish communities, but that is massively amplified now.”
However, some events did still go ahead, such as an event at Hendon and Edgware Reform Synagogue in northwest London where Jewish, Muslim and Hindu women came together to cook for a nearby night shelter for homeless people.
“When it works, it’s because we focus on the service and keep off international politics,” Ms Marks explained.
Faith Action, a national network that supports faith-based organisations in their communities, was involved in interfaith events across the country. Its executive director, Daniel Singleton, agreed that it helped to focus on issues other than the Middle East.
“An event that focused on the cost of living, for example, went ahead,” he said. “But at times it wasn’t so easy. Some people declined to speak at planned events.”
Julie Siddiqi, an activist with a focus on Muslim-Jewish relations, said Interfaith Week this year had been “very testing”. “There has been a backlash,” she said, “with some people in our communities thinking that those involved in interfaith dialogue weaken their causes.”
But she believed the situation could have been worse if dialogue had not already existed, and the bonds had helped at a time when both Jewish and Muslim communities were devastated by lives lost on both sides in Israel and Gaza. “While publicly it’s been difficult, Jews and Muslims have been messaging one another privately,” she said.
Another high-profile event, organised to mark Interfaith Week, was a gathering in Lambeth Palace Library, attended by the King and hosted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. Among the 30 guests were the Chief Rabbi, Sir Ephraim Mirvis, and Aliya Azam from the Al-Khoei Foundation. Lambeth Palace said it provided an opportunity for faith leaders to talk to the King about what their communities are experiencing in the light of global conflicts.
The reception also offered the opportunity to look at how these conflicts affect community relations in this country.
Ms Siddiqi, who was among the guests at the Lambeth reception, said that the King spoke to everyone attending and was keen to learn more about interfaith dialogue, inviting women present to meet him again in the coming months to tell him more about their work together.