The ‘devastating, outrageous’ impending closure of the Inter Faith Network

The King meets Dr Harriet Crabtree, Executive Director Inter Faith Network, at Lambeth Palace library. Image credit: Crown copyright

By Ruth Peacock

The impending closure of the Inter Faith Network after 37 years has shocked and dismayed faith leaders across the UK.

The government says it is withdrawing funding because a new Inter Faith Network (IFN) trustee, Hassan Joudi, is associated with the Muslim Council of Britain, an organisation which the government will not speak to due to a dispute dating from 2009. The IFN says that unless the government changes its mind, the organisation will be forced to close on 22 February.

The Inter Faith Network was set up to raise awareness and understanding of different faith communities and promote good interfaith relations. It has supported local initiatives and brought together national faith organisations to provide opportunities for safe dialogue, especially needed during flashpoints such as the Salman Rushdie book burning, 9/11 and terrorist attacks in the UK.

In a Religion Media Centre briefing, speakers engaged in interfaith work said the IFN’s role was more important than ever now against the background of war in the Middle East.

Dr Ed Kessler, founder director of the Woolf Institute, told the briefing: “I think it’s an outrageous decision. We’ve heard about the importance of the IFN being an umbrella organization, but the void, the gap it will leave, even for those of us engaged in the interfaith arena, will not be filled.

“There needs to be a coordinated body that brings together local and national organizations. I’ve never known the interfaith situation dialogue to be as difficult as it is right now, as a result of the October 7 attacks and the severity of the Israeli response. It has made it very difficult for groups to come together. What a time for an organisation like this to close!”

Dr Kessler said there was a question of how Inter Faith Week, usually held in November each year, would look in the future.

He thought there would not be a collapse in interfaith work, but it would begin to wither and there would be a “step by step degrading of interfaith relations”.

Organisations that needed a little bit of encouragement, TLC and guidance especially in a crisis, would have nowhere to turn, he said: “Those of us who do support the interfaith network, both in terms of our time, energy or sponsorship, are devastated that this might happen.”

The Bishop of Bradford Toby Howarth agreed that “if we’re not careful”, there will be a vacuum. Bishops in the Lords were very concerned about the development. Part of the Church of England’s remit was to facilitate “a kind of religious ecosystem, which is healthy”. But he said it would be invidious for one religion or denomination to try to do the work of bringing people together.

Bishop Patrick McKinney, the lead Catholic bishop for inter religious dialogue, said he was very saddened by the development: “The government speaks so often of the importance of community cohesion. And I think the work of inter religious dialogue, the Inter Faith Network, plays a most important part in facilitating good community relationships and cohesion”

He singled out for special praise Inter Faith Week and the IFN’s work in encouraging local faith forums, where support from a national body was invaluable.

So how has it come to this? The Inter Faith Network has a detailed statement on its website charting the various letters and statements from both sides over the past year.

Hosting the event, Rosie Dawson summarised the reasons circulating in the media as to why the government was “minded” to pull funding. One was that two IFN member organisations had called for this; another was that the IFN didn’t condemn the Hamas attack on Israel; and the third was that trustee, Hassan Joudi, was a member of the Muslim Council of Britain.

Inter Faith Network’s executive director, Dr Harriet Crabtree, confirmed that the only reason given by the government was the trustee being a member of the Muslim Council of Britain.

Dr Crabtree explained that IFN’s co-chairs and moderators did discuss issuing a statement on the Hamas attacks but “they didn’t come to agreement. They were not in consensus about issuing one at that time and a different route was taken with extensive highlighting of the need to stand together against hatred, incorporating a number of things about the impact of conflict, Israel, Gaza, Palestine etc., but not commenting directly on the overseas events”.

She told the briefing that the IFN does not automatically comment on overseas events, only occasionally where they are likely to have an impact on interfaith relations in the UK.

She explained that the MCB is an affiliate organisation of the IFN, which has an admissions policy: “If IFN ever had a body in membership that was shown to have broken the law or being proscribed, that would be a different matter. We were never informed at any juncture that having a trustee from any of our organizations would be a matter for considered withdrawal of funding”.

The MCB declined to put forward a spokesperson, but Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, a former assistant secretary general of the MCB, was at the briefing. He explained the story from 2009 which led to the government refusing to talk to the MCB. It was about a declaration to end the blockade of Gaza, which was signed by Daud Abdullah, deputy secretary general of the MCB, in a personal capacity.

He said: “That was the end of it. Sadly, that has continued over the years, which is really bizarre because many of those individuals have moved on, the organisation has grown and has changed. We’ve had a turnaround of people, younger people and so forth.

“But the MCB has always been engaged in interfaith relationships. I think they were one of the first two real bodies to join and support the Inter Faith Network and continue to do so”.

The government has no formal relationship with any Muslim organisation and this was criticised by Rabbi Warren Elf, who has been involved in interfaith activities in Manchester for 20 years.

He said “If anyone says something in keeping with their role as a Muslim leader that the government doesn’t like, they drop them.”

He said all faith groups needed to come together to “engage with the government about the way they interact with the Muslim community because I think it’s despicable”.

The IFN had been invaluable to him and  he was highly critical of the decision to withdraw funding. He believed there were “certain members of the government” who did not want to engage with faith communities. But he said: “We need to put pressure on the government to say, ‘Look, you need to fund this work’.

The IFN represents organisations throughout the UK and the threat from the Westminster government is in sharp contrast to Scotland, where Inter Faith Scotland receives 85 per cent of its income from the Scottish government and has done so for 22 years.

Susan Siegal, from Inter Faith Scotland, explained that the government there believed it was important to be a welcoming and safe place for everyone of diverse faiths, and a place where dialogue is encouraged. They were the go-to organisation for cross party, multi faith activities.

The role of local authorities in England in organising interfaith work was described by Adiba Rashid, partnership and engagement officer with Stronger Communities, Bradford, within the council. She said they had worked locally with police and other partners including faith groups and had brought people round the table to discuss issues of concern.

But they needed the national Inter Faith Network to share best practice, exchange lessons learned and liaise over “tension monitoring” when global stories affected local cohesion.

She also highlighted an increasing problem with the squeeze on local government finance, saying there was a proposal to remove ten of the eleven people in her team. That plus the IFN demise was “a double whammy”.

Patricia Stoat, chair of the Nottingham Inter Faith council, said she spoke for all local groups that the Inter Faith Network was hugely important for them, encouraging the sharing of ideas and information, learning from each other, and sustaining their existence. Many local groups had lost funding from local government over the last few years.

“The interfaith network has been a source of constant encouragement and support in the struggles and we will miss it very, very much”, she said.

Jasvir Singh, who runs City Sikhs, said it was a fundamental part of their belief system, that conversations with people from other backgrounds and from other faiths were needed, and the beauty of the IFN was that it facilitated an environment where this could happen. The briefing heard that another benefit of the IFN was that many different groups within a faith tradition joined and then worked together.

Asked why the government should pay for a faith network when religious belief was in decline and non-religion was rising, Dr Madeleine Pennington, head of research at the think tank Theos said there was a false assumption that faith was only relevant to -people who have it. It was not a private matter but public facing, not a problem to be solved but something that contributed to the answer. Social cohesion, which IFN promotes, is something that matters to everybody, she said.

Rabbi Warren Elf had a theory about the future: “I don’t know whether (the government) has set up “Faith Action” as an alternative that they want to engage with and deprioritise the relationships with the Inter Faith Network, but I think the role of the two groups is very separate”.

Faith Action, based in Essex, is rolling out “covenants” where local authorities agree to liaise with faith groups in a structured way. They were unable to put forward a spokesperson for the briefing. Dr Crabtree said the IFN engages regularly and helpfully with Faith Action and they were not rival entities.

Asked if there were any alternatives to closure, Dr Crabtree said the organisation had tried to find funding from elsewhere, but its work was behind the scenes and not that attractive to funders. “Wonderful” individual donations, membership fees and legacies were welcome but didn’t go far enough to enable the charity to continue.

Trustees decided that putting the organisation on ice to be resurrected one day in the future was not straightforward. Full closure was the most sensible and wise option so the legacy could be built on in the future.

And there was still time for the government to change its mind before the charity made the final decision to close. They have set themselves the deadline of Thursday 22 February.

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said no minister was available to join the briefing. They gave us this statement: “All funded organisations are monitored by the department and subject to internal finance and due diligence processes”.

You can see the briefing on out You Tube channel here:


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