Religion news 23 February 2024

Sir Stephen Timms urgent question on the Inter Faith Network. Image credit: Open Parliament Licence

Inter Faith Network closes after 37 years

The board of trustees of the Inter Faith Network for the UK has agreed that the charity will close, a decision linked to the withdrawal by the government of funding for July 2023 – March 2024. A statement issued after a board meeting yesterday, said the trustees made this decision with much regret and trustees and staff would now work towards closure, to preserve its legacy in ways that enable others to build strongly on that in the future.

“Extraordinarily stupid” to shut down main vehicle for Muslim-Jewish dialogue

Sir Stephen Timms asked an urgent question in the Commons about the closure.  He said: “Is it not extraordinarily stupid to be shutting down at this precise point our principal vehicle in the UK for Muslim-Jewish dialogue?” He queried the government’s assertion that the reason for pulling the money was the appointment of a new trustee, Hassan Joudi, on 12 July 2023, who has been associated with the Muslim Council of Britain. Sir Stephen pointed out that the IFN was first told on 31 March 2023 that its funding would be ended.  The minister for Levelling Up, Felicity Buchan (not the faith minister), was asked who would take IFN’s place in facilitating interfaith dialogue. She told the Commons her department funds a number of organisations that work at a local level to support inter-faith work and community cohesion, including “Near Neighbours” and “Strengthening Faith Institutions”.  Near Neighbours is a charity managed by the Church of England’s Church Urban Fund, which builds relationships and community between different faith groups. It received government money until April 2023.  Strengthening Faith Institutions is a government initiative to support faith centres in England to improve their governance, backed by the Department for Levelling Up and run as a programme within the Fayre Share Foundation charity.  Sir Christopher Chope (C) said the IFN had received £1.5 million from the government in the past five years: “Is not the message for other organisations that they should not be too dependent on taxpayer funding?” Ms Buchan replied: “My hon. Friend has expressed that point very well”.

The following MPs spoke in support of the Inter Faith Network: Theresa Villers (C), Liz Twist (L), Bob Blackman (C), Holly Lynch (L), Wera Hobhouse (LD), Barry Sheerman (L), Debbie Abrahams (L), Ruth Jones (L) and Jim Shannon (DUP).

Anti Muslim hate crime up 335 per cent since 7 October

Tell Mama, which supports victims of Islamophobia, reports that anti Muslim hate crime has more than tripled since 7 October. It recorded 2,010 Islamophobic incidents between 7 October and 7 February, against 600 cases for the same period last year. More than half the cases were hate speech on social media and a quarter took place in London. The total also included assault, abusive behaviour, threats and vandalism and two thirds were directed against Muslim women. Director Iman Atta told the BBC that Muslim and Jewish communities were impacted by the war: “One thing both communities agree on is that we all need to be able to go around our day-to-day basis feeling safe, feeling that we’re not going to be targeted for who we are”.

Methodist leaders condemn widespread killing in Gaza

The president of the Methodist Conference, the Rev Gill Newton and the vice-president, Kerry Scarlett, have issued a statement saying they are deeply disappointed at the parliamentary process which led to angry, chaotic scenes instead of a vote on the “horrors in Gaza”. They urge the UK government to “denounce actions that epitomise a collective punishment of the population of Gaza. The scale of the destruction and tragic loss of life in so short a space of time is incomparable to any other conflict in recent times”. While grieving for all lives lost on 7 October they say “there is no justification for such widespread killing of tens of thousands of innocent people”. They describe “horrific strikes on southern Gaza” and alarm at the shelling of Nasser Hospital in Gaza. “Time will tell whether what we witness in Gaza today is an ethnic cleansing of the present population”. The full statement is here

Archbishop admits more questions should have been asked of Paula Vennels

The Archbishop of Canterbury has admitted that more questions should have been asked about the involvement of Paula Vennells, former CEO of the Post Office, in various committees and working groups in the Church of England.  Ms Vennells is a non-stipendiary priest in the Church of England, who helped in a parish in Bedfordshire, but stepped away from clerical duties in 2021. Asked how it was that she was considered to be Bishop of London, despite never having even run a parish, Justin Welby confirmed that candidates without significant parish experience are considered because they offer other comparable and relevant experience, but in virtually all cases parish experience is deemed to be “really important”. The archbishop’s answers were in response to written questions put before the general synod of the Church of England, which starts in London today. Papers have been issued in advance. Questions 77 – 80 here

MP suggests CofE needs new leadership to deal with same sex blessings and safeguarding

Labour MP Sir Ben Bradshaw has suggested the Church of England’s top leaders should change, in view of the serial failures in safeguarding and continuing acrimony over same sex relationships. He told the Commons that the papers before synod this weekend “recommend backtracking on the agreements made, not just in February but in the autumn General Synod, regarding same-sex blessings and the rules governing priests in same-sex relationships. That is totally unacceptable”. He asked the second church estates commissioner Andrew Selous, if he agreed that “dealing with both those very important historical challenges for the Church appears to be beyond the capacity and will of its current leadership, and that perhaps our established Church might benefit from a fresh start at the top?” Mr Selous said the CofE would put things right in safeguarding, and it is committed to reconciling different views on same sex relationships in order to “walk together”.

Bishop thanks the UK for helping Ukrainian refugees for two years since war began

Tomorrow marks the second anniversary of the war in Ukraine, a period which Bishop Kenneth Nowakowski describes as a nightmare that has gone on too long. Speaking at a press conference, the bishop, who leads the Ukrainian Catholic Church based in London, said the anniversary was a sad date, but the 280,000 Ukrainians in the UK had not felt abandoned. He praised churches and other faith groups who helped them and said they shared a “mood and a hope” that they would be able to return to their home country. His church in Mayfair has set up a welcome centre and offers pastoral and practical support.  

Alabama ruling that destroying IVF embryos is abortion condemned by President Biden

President Biden has condemned the Alabama high court’s ruling that destroying IVF embryos is a form of abortion. Chief Justice Tom Parker invoked religious reasons for his judgment saying the people of Alabama adopted a “theologically based view of the sanctity of life” that God made every person in his own image and “human life cannot be wrongfully destroyed without incurring the wrath of a holy God, who views the destruction of His image as an affront to Himself.”  Several facilities are  pausing IVF treatments as a result. Biden said “the disregard for women’s ability to make these decisions for themselves and their families is outrageous and unacceptable.” Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said citing the Bible in this manner is part of a larger Christian nationalist movement – the idea that America was created by and for Christians and its laws should reflect that.

Catholic group calls for transgender funeral to be investigated as a hate crime

Catholic Vote, a conservative US group campaigning for “Faith, Family, and Freedom” is calling on the New York attorney general and the city’s district attorney to investigate the funeral for a transgender activist at St Patrick’s Cathedral as a hate crime. Around 1,000 people attended the service for Cecilia Gentili, a former sex worker and transgender activist, but did not tell the cathedral officials she was transgender, fearing the funeral would not be allowed. Afterwards the cathedral’s pastor, Enrique Salvo, said it had no idea “our welcome and prayer would be degraded in such a sacrilegious and deceptive way” and a Mass of Reparation would be held.  Gentili’s family said. “We bestow sainthood upon Cecilia, for her life’s work, for how she ministered, mothered, and loved all people regardless of HIV, immigration, or employment status. Her heart and hands reached those the sanctimonious church continues to belittle, oppress, and chastise.”

Retired Catholic bishop in Australia charged with rape

Christopher Saunders, the retired Catholic bishop of Broome in north west Australia has appeared in court on charges of sexual offences against children, including two counts of rape, 14 counts of unlawful and indecent assault, and three counts of indecently dealing with a child as a person in authority. Christopher Saunders, aged 74, was the bishop of Broome from 1996 to 2021. He has been remanded on bail.


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