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International Delegation of Interfaith Activists from URI visit Britain

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By Warwick Hawkins

In early March a delegation of representatives of the world’s largest interfaith body, the United Religions Initiative (URI), visited the English Midlands and London at the invitation of its UK affiliate the United Religions Initiative UK.

The delegation included Preeta Bansal, an American social entrepreneur, lawyer and former senior policy advisor at the White House, who is now Global Chair of URI, and its Executive Director Jerry White, a campaigner and humanitarian activist who shared in the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in banning landmines.

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The delegation and conference participants outside the Shri Venkateswara (Balaji) temple, one of the largest Hindu places of worship in Europe

URI is a United Nations affiliate organisation, founded in California in 1998 by retired Episcopalian Bishop William Swing as part of the 50th anniversary commemorations of the signing of the UN Charter. His purpose was to bring different faith groups together in dialogue, fellowship and productive endeavour, mirroring the purposes of the UN in the religious sphere.

URI now has over 1,150 member grassroots groups (“Cooperation Circles”) in 110 countries, divided into eight global regions. These are engaged in areas including youth and women empowerment, environmental protection, promoting freedom of religion and belief, and fostering multifaith cooperation to address social issues. One of the URI’s most active global regions is URI Europe, with over sixty Cooperation Circles across 25 countries. Members of the Board and secretariat of URI Europe from Belgium, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Bulgaria, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain joined the ten person delegation.

URI UK is a registered charity and part of the URI Europe network. It pursues URI’s global aims within the UK context: building bridges of cooperation among diverse religious communities, fostering understanding and collaboration, helping to end religiously motivated violence, and creating cultures of peace, justice, and healing. It was reestablished in 2021 following some years in abeyance, and currently links four UK-based Co-operation Circles. Its activities have included a youth conference on Freedom of Religion and Belief and a multi-faith celebration of King Charles III’s Coronation.

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Multi-faith tree planting for the King’s Coronation

URI UK works with all who share its values, such as places of worship, youth groups and community activists, and welcomes people from any background and of all faiths or none. It regards its work as more important than ever, at a time of significant global and local challenges to good relationships between people with differing religious adherence. Chair of Trustees, Deepak Naik, said “Events in the Middle East and elsewhere are posing real challenges for good relations between faith groups here in Britain. On top of that, we learned of the tragic closure of the Inter Faith Network for the UK, which has done outstanding work in supporting dialogue for over 25 years. It is vital to strengthen interfaith activity in the UK and draw in new participants.”

Bringing international perspectives to help regalvanise interfaith activity in the Midlands and London was one of the purposes of the March visit programme. It was also designed to introduce the delegation to interfaith practice and issues in the UK, where some 130 interfaith groups operate at local, regional and national level. Preeta Bansal said, “Britain has always had a good reputation for interfaith dialogue, and my colleagues and I were keen to learn more. We also hope our experiences  provided fresh perspectives for activists here and will give rise to new projects and approaches.”

Based in Coleshill in the English West Midlands, the delegation travelled to five diverse inner city districts over four days: Handsworth in Birmingham, Oldbury in the Black Country, the Golden Mile in Leicester, Swanswell Park in Coventry, and the London Borough of Barnet. The programme included visits to places of worship (including observing acts of worship), a touring exhibition, shared meals, and conferences in the five host venues.

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The delegation visited Coventry Cathedral, an international centre for peace and reconciliation following its destruction in World War Two

The conferences addressed some difficult themes: preventing religion-motivated violence; exploring the threats that face interfaith understanding; the fragility of interfaith work; and promoting enduring, daily interfaith cooperation to address social issues. They featured contributions from prominent interfaith activists, clergy of different faiths, a Member of Parliament, a Police and Crime Commissioner, academics and local Councillors, table discussions and shared meals. Audiences were drawn from those new to interfaith dialogue as well as more seasoned practitioners. URI UK hopes that more UK interfaith initiatives will choose to become URI Cooperation Circles as a result of the visit, giving them access to resources and contacts worldwide.

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Conference delegates at the Nishkam Centre, Birmingham

The programme was also designed to introduce UK interfaith activists to the Public Health Approach to Violence Prevention. This is a new model for isolating and disrupting patterns of violent behaviour which has obtained widespread academic endorsement and gained favour among crime prevention policy-makers in the United States since 2000. It sees a propensity to violence not as an innate condition of certain individuals, but as a pathological behaviour akin to a physical disease. Just as a contagion of disease is effectively tackled by outbreaks being contained and interrupted, so there are powerful techniques for containing, deflecting and interrupting violence, and stopping it spreading – whether this be violent crime, domestic violence, racist violence or religion-motivated violence.

The March conferences tested British reactions to the Approach, in particular relating to religion motivated violence. Participants strongly encouraged URI UK to promote it in UK urban contexts, initially through running pilot schemes in selected urban locations. Deepak Naik said, “I believe the Public Health Approach is clearly applicable for addressing of religion-motivated violence in the UK, whether this take the form of Antisemitic incidents during pro-Palestinian protests in major centres and on campuses, or the Hindu-Muslim riots that were experienced in the previously well integrated city of Leicester in 2021.”

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Jerry White explained the Public Health Approach to Preventing Violence

URI UK believes that the visit programme amply met its objectives. Feedback from the international delegation was strongly positive. Franco-Belgian activist Eric Roux, who is a URI Global Council’s trustee for Europe, said, “This visit in UK was really inspiring. The people we met, their diversity and their dedication to a better society, more inclusive and working together in peace, showed us that there is a great willingness in UK to have a vibrant and effective interfaith network. And honestly, these people, from all faiths or none, do a great job in UK. That’s of course needed, as in every country of the world. That’s exactly what URI is all about: grassroot efforts and initiatives. And we are very eager to do our share to empower the people we met in UK with an international network of such efforts, hoping that the grassroot/international connection can help increasing the impact”. Karimah Stauch, URI Europe Coordinator, from Germany added, “We are convinced that interfaith actors make a unique contribution to combating Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and all forms of group-based prejudice and hatred. We commend the great work of URI UK and all interfaith actors in the UK and offer our cooperation.

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The Leicester conference, with URI UK Chair Deepak Naik kneeling in the centre

Warwick Hawkins: Warwick served as a career civil servant, providing advisory services to successive British Governments on matters related to religious engagement for a span of 18 years. During this time, he conceptualized and executed various initiatives aimed at fostering interreligious dialogue and promoting social action. His responsibilities encompassed empowering local communities through community rights initiatives and organizing multi-faith commemorations for significant events such as the First World War centenary, the Millennium, and the Golden Jubilee of Elizabeth II. Warwick’s most recent position was leading the Faith Communities Engagement team within the Integration and Faith Division of the Department for Communities and Local Government. He transitioned from government employment in 2016 to establish his own consultancy, Faith in Society, a social enterprise dedicated to supporting faith groups in their civil society engagements through advocacy, strategic planning, and fundraising assistance. In recognition of his contributions to inter-religious dialogue, Warwick was honored with an MBE in the 2014 New Year’s Honours list. He has since remained actively involved in inter-religious projects in various capacities, including private consultancy and trustee roles.

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