The Inter Faith Network faces closure. How will its work continue?

Image credit: Inter Faith Network

By Lianne Kolirin

The Inter Faith Network (IFN) is expected to close its operations this month after 37 years of working with Britain’s many faith communities and promoting good relations between them.

Faith leaders were shocked and dismayed by the announcement of the closure, triggered by the government’s decision to withdraw its funding.

The IFN was the first organisation to bring national faith communities and their leaders into regular engagement and has continued to play an important role in enabling them to discuss issues of common concern — as well as running the Inter Faith Week in England, Wales and Northern Ireland every November.

So, will the body’s closure spell the end for interfaith work in Britain and how do those continuing to work in this field feel about the future?

Puzzlement and hurt

Warwick Hawkins is the trustee and executive director of the United Religions Initiative (URI) UK. He was previously a civil servant, for many years heading up the government’s faith and cohesion unit.

This month the initiative hosted a three-day conference when members from its international and European network visited to discuss their work and share new ideas. Among them was Preeta Bansal, President Barack Obama’s former senior policy adviser.

“The opportunity came up for the international URI to come over to the UK because they were interested in how we do interfaith,” Mr Hawkins said. “It was kind of a fact-finding thing but we also very much hoped they would be able to offer a perspective that would assist interfaith activists here in the UK. I think they found it helpful and interesting as did everyone who attended the conferences.”

The UK-based charity was originally set up in the 1990s but was “regalvinised” in 2022 by chairman Deepak Naik. It was at this point that Mr Hawkins joined.

“They came to the view that after lockdown it would be as important as ever, if not more important, for interfaith activity to resume,” he said.

The organisation is hoping to recruit individuals and organisations to work with them on interfaith dialogue and social action.

Closure of IFN will “clearly” leave a “gap,” Mr Hawkins said, but URI UK is not about to replace it. “We all feel that the IFN did amazing work … linking people and offering resources to interfaith work.

“There is a lot of puzzlement but also a lot of hurt in the interfaith sector at the closure of the IFN. There is still a faint hope that the network will be able to survive, or at least will be able to carry on a certain number of its strands of work like the Inter Faith Week.

“The URI UK is a new organisation based in the West Midlands. We aren’t really positioned to operate on a national scale even if we felt it was for us, but what we can do is host conversations as we were doing in events at the beginning of March with the hope of galvanising interfaith activity and attracting some new people into it.”

This, Mr Hawkins said, is all important right now. “If you look at the Abrahamic faiths, people are hunkering down and protecting their own communities. Meanwhile, there’s an increase of antisemitism and Islamophobia in our cities and on campuses. It’s all the more important that channels of interfaith are kept open.

“The IFN is closing at exactly the time when it’s most needed. A number of organisations are looking at what they do and seeing if there are ways of stepping up — not taking over everything that the IFN has been responsible for, but maybe aspects of it.”

Community action

Phil Champain is director of the Faith and Belief Forum, which has operated nationwide for about 25 years, often on university campuses.

“We’re about dialogue, encounter, encouraging people to connect, to learn about each other, and to learn about different faiths, but also the intersectionality between faith and different aspects of identity because faith is not in a box,” he said. “It’s connected to age, sexuality and particularly race.

“We encompass a broad range of faiths and beliefs, not just religious faith. Our work is to create opportunities for encounter and dialogue and connection because we believe it’s through that that people understand each other.”

The forum is probably the biggest interfaith organisation besides the IFN, Mr Champain says, and works especially closely with young people.

“Young people are not so motivated by religious observance,” he said. “They’re motivated by the community aspects of faith which really is about action. We saw it during Covid, how faith groups stepped up to meet the needs of different communities, whether that was food, shelter, burial and so on.

“Young people are interested in how their faith values can help tackle climate change or the refugee issue, so we’re very much tuned into that.”

Impact of 7 October

Mr Champain believes the IFN’s closure is a symptom of a broader problem. Interfaith has, he says, become “less fundable and less appealing” to government, funders, philanthropists and maybe even faith communities since Hamas attacked Israel on 7 October and the conflict in Gaza broke out.

“Since 7 October there’s been a sense that interfaith isn’t really working,” he said. “I think the interfaith of the past was a bit conflict-averse and it struggled to get into conversations like Israel-Palestine and the Middle East. It was the elephant in the room.”

People still struggled to discuss it, he said, which was why “people are retreating into the safety of their own groups”. “Everybody is scared about saying the wrong thing and there are strong lobbies on different sides creating a lot of noise,” he said.

“I think interfaith work is being squeezed and what happened to the IFN is a symptom of that. I think they’re not the only ones. I think there are others, including us, who are going to get squeezed from different directions.”

The situation is a sad paradox, he believes. “People are struggling to see the value of interfaith, but at the same time there’s a huge spike in antisemitism and Islamophobia which means we need more [interfaith].”

The squeeze is also being felt financially. “Philanthropists and donors are under pressure politically from different sides,” Mr Champain said.  “If you’re a Jewish philanthropist you’re probably more likely to put money into those affected in Israel by the current conflict. If you’re a Muslim philanthropist you’re probably more inclined to put funding into those suffering in Gaza.”

Recent government approaches — such as the new controversial definition of extremism — do not help, he said, while also showing politicians are “not really in tune with what is needed”. A general election is due this year and while the result cannot of course be predicted, Mr Champain said: “Labour will hopefully bring something else but it’s not clear at the moment what that will be.”

Perhaps most importantly, however, is the need for those within the sector to step up and “articulate its needs”, Mr Champain said. “At the moment the faith sector is being defined by government rather than defining itself. There’s a need for the faith sector to express itself more confidently and speak out a bit more.”

Faith covenants for collaboration

Daniel Singleton is national executive director of FaithAction, a national network of faith-based and community organisations seeking to serve through social action and services such as health and social care, childcare, housing and welfare to work.

He said that the news of IFN’s closure came as a “surprise” and that he was “gutted” about the news. “They’ve been around since 1987 and funded by every hue of government. Since then, they have played a significant role so it was a bit of a surprise,” he said.

“Flags have gone up and it feels like we’re in a little bit of territory-marking. We’re in a time of considerable religious-related tensions and I think in many ways I think the government’s action reflects those things.

“Any opportunity to bring people together is a good thing generally and so taking away this particular arrow in the quiver seems odd.”

Mr Singleton explained that his organisation was the secretariat to the all-party parliamentary group on faith and society. Together the two groups have drafted the “faith covenant” — a set of principles to enable local authorities and faith groups to work together in providing for their community.

He said: “There were a number of places that were looking to sign the faith covenant in November. I was even due to visit one, but they cancelled it about a month beforehand because they’d worked on a joint statement by someone from the Jewish community, someone from the Muslim community and in the end it was just trashed by the rest of the group.”

Current challenges

Good interfaith work relies on putting preconceived ideas aside to get to know people. “I’m very much a believer in relationships between individuals of different faiths,” Mr Singleton said. “Typically, if there’s a Muslim-Jewish relationship already, the current crisis will potentially not get in the way of that relationship. It may be strained, it may be difficult, but you can talk to one another.

“What I think you find is that you can’t forge new relationships in the midst of what we’re in at the moment in relation to Gaza. If the bridge of a relationship is not yet built, you can’t put weight across it. But on the other side, going back to Covid, where the bridge relationship already existed, it could bear the weight of food deliveries and other things. The key thing is to build your relationships while there’s not pressure.”

Finding common ground and an action to unite around is all-important, he said, giving the example of a project that he ran where communities introduced knife bins at their places of worship. “We bring people together for a purpose,” he said.

Covid led to a “positive image of faith participation,” but current events had led to the faith being put “back in a problem box from a media perspective”.

He added: “To some extent that’s unfair because there’s lots of things that faith does. I don’t know if that’s really a challenge to interfaith as such because I think the people who talk will still talk, but it’s certainly a challenging time.”

The network’s legacy

Dr Harriet Crabtree, the Inter Faith Network’sexecutive director, says its closure will be felt keenly. Its work included providing information and advice to a wide variety of public bodies including football clubs, fostering agencies and the Royal British Legion.

It has worked with national and local government on social cohesion initiatives and promoted work with young people and women. It has been a source of advice during conflicts that have triggered hate crime and antagonism, issuing statements and supporting communities.

While the IFN works to wind down its affairs, she reflected on how its work may continue.  “The breadth and interconnectedness of IFN’s work on the interfaith front will leave a considerable void, as numerous commentators … have pointed out,” she said.

“As IFN prepares to close, it has asked all its member bodies to consider how its different strands of work might be carried into the future. Many considered responses have been coming in. The board has begun to look at those and will be considering them again in the coming weeks.

“While IFN will not be there to support new processes, it hopes that through sharing of the emerging ideas, and through making available online … its resources, its legacy will help those developing new ways to support and encourage interfaith understanding and co-operation in the UK.

“[These will contribute] in new ways towards its vision of ‘a society where there is understanding of the diversity and richness of the faith communities in the UK and the contribution that they make; and where we live and work together with mutual respect and shared commitment to the common good.’

“That can only continue to become more important.”


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