EXISTING STRUCTURES FOR DIALOGUE
Within diverse communities there is a growing awareness of the need to engage in dialogue. There is an increased recognition that Scotland's diverse communities cannot exist in isolation and independently of every other community if we are to nurture a society based on equality for all. Polarisation of different communities and groups is not healthy and can only lead to fragmentation, division and a lack of community cohesion.
The need to recognise the equal legitimacy of every community to exist in Scotland is enshrined as a human right, and by this we need to think about community in the broadest sense of the word. While most religious communities have established formal structures, non-religious communities and groups have considerably fewer formal structures but still need to be seen as communities in the sense that those who advocate such beliefs are bound together by the beliefs they share.
Structures are already in place for the facilitation of inter-faith dialogue - through the Scottish Inter-Faith Council and local inter-faith groups across Scotland - and building on these, or using them as a template, to facilitate a wider dialogue could be considered. Having such structures in place becomes increasingly important to help maintain community cohesion through times of difficulty.
National inter-faith structures
In 1999 a national structure, the Scottish Inter Faith Council ( SIFC), was created to promote inter-faith dialogue and to encourage faith communities in civic engagement. SIFC was brought into being by a number of Scotland's religious communities and was designed as a representative organisation whose membership structure includes diverse faith communities, local inter-faith groups and educational bodies with a multi-faith remit.
Over the years SIFC has organised national events which bring together:
- Religious communities.
- Local Inter-Faith Groups.
- Women of faith.
- Young people of faith.
- Scotland's religious leaders.
Since 2003, SIFC has also organised Scottish Inter Faith Week. This usually takes place during the last week of November/first week of December, coinciding with St Andrew's Day celebrating Scotland's patron saint, and has been used to raise awareness of, and celebrate, the inter-faith activities taking place throughout Scotland. It is supported by Scotland's religious leaders, local inter-faith groups, faith communities and voluntary organisations, as well as the Scottish Government, the Scottish Parliament, Scottish local authorities, and other statutory service providers in Scotland.
The idea behind Scottish Inter-Faith Week was that local inter-faith groups, religious communities, schools, public institutions and individuals host an inter-faith event relevant to their local communities. The aim of the week is to:
- Strengthen good inter-faith relations.
- Highlight and develop the inter-faith work being done at the local and national level.
- Encourage religious groups to reach out to one another and build stronger bonds of understanding and co-operation.
- Give religious communities an opportunity to work together on a common project or event.
- Allow statutory bodies added opportunities to support inter-faith awareness.
- Allow the general public to learn something of the beliefs and practices of religious communities.
The first National inter-faith week was held in England and Wales in 2009 and other European countries are also beginning to organise their own National inter-faith events. At the end of 2010, the United Nations approved proposals for a World Inter-faith Harmony Week, and a number of events took place to mark this in February 2011.
Local inter-faith structures
Having inter-faith structures at the local level is an effective means of engaging grass roots faith communities in dialogue. At the time of writing there are fourteen local inter-faith groups in Scotland in both urban and rural settings. These groups vary greatly in their organisational structure and in the variety of inter-faith activities they undertake. Edinburgh Inter-Faith Association, for example, hosts local, national and international events and has service level agreements with many statutory bodies which allow them to support the delivery of public services in a way which is sensitive to the particular needs of faith communities. Other groups meet regularly for dialogue and community activities and have varying degrees of collaboration and engagement with statutory bodies at the local level.
Inter-faith work led by religious communities
Some religious communities have established formal inter-faith structures - for example, the Christian Churches Agency for Inter-Faith Relations in Scotland and the Buddhist Centre for Inter-Faith and Healing - and since 2002 the religious leaders from the Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Baha'i, Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communities have met twice a year for dialogue. Such meetings have, on occasion, allowed a common and united response to be given to issues of local or national concern.
Representatives from diverse religions have also been appointed to serve on the Scottish Inter-Faith Council thereby giving them a direct input to national inter-faith engagement. These representatives may then work with their communities at the grass roots level to encourage greater awareness of the need for inter-faith dialogue and the benefits of living in a diverse society.
Dialogue initiative by non-religious belief groups
Shortly after the visit of Pope Benedict to Britain, 14 Humanists and 8 members of a group called 'The Catholic Voices Speakers' Team', met in London for two hours of discussion on contentious issues. A frank exchange of views then took place, aiming at clarifying areas of disagreement such as Aids and the use of condoms, faith schools, and same-sex adoption. One member of the Humanist team and one member of the Catholic team were delegated to summarise the views of the other side, in order to ensure that both sides listened carefully to each other's views.
The atmosphere was respectful and attentive, but there was no attempt to suppress real differences and everyone felt afterwards that they had learned from the experience. Further meetings are now being planned.