Religious Leaders

On Wednesday Adama Dieng, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide, visited Interfaith Scotland for a dialogue event. He presented the UN’s “Plan of Action for the Prevention of Genocide”.

In the dialogue he realised that a lot of good practise that he encourages people all over the world to do is actually already happening in Scotland. The plan of action addresses mainly (but not only) Religious Leaders and Actors. For me this gives me an opportunity to reflect a bit on the role of religious leaders for interfaith dialogue and genocide prevention.

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Impression from the “Prevention of Genocide” discussion

The connection of interfaith dialogue and genocide prevention

For me the prevention of genocides and religious violence is one of the most important motivations for interfaith dialogue. Good interfaith relationships are probably the best way to prevent religious motivated hate crimes (and the genocide is the worst form of a hate crimes). In the Holocaust, as well as in the persecution of Baha’i in Iran or Rohinga Muslims in Myanmar religion was/is one of the motivations for the committed crimes.

The important role of religious leaders for interfaith dialogue

Faith communities are structured in very different ways. They can be very hierarchical or with a very flat hierarchy. They can be structured top-down or bottom-up. Nearly all faith communities have some kind of persons that are responsible for representing them at different occasions.

It is very different how much “power” the different religious leaders have in speaking for their community, but what they are doing as representatives is usually highly symbolic. When religious leaders for example meet people from other religions this usually has an impact on how the public and people from their own religion see the relationship to people of other religions. Depending on the structure of their faith community religious leaders are also able to “set themes” for the discussion inside their community.

One difficulty with religious leaders can be that not everyone in their faith community might be excited about a larger interfaith engagement. Because of that it is possible that certain religious leaders can’t go as far forward with their actions as they might wish to do, because they have to respect and also represent those members of their community that are not interested in interfaith. Another difficulty for an interfaith dialogue between faith leaders can be that in case a leader is not very much interested in interfaith themselves it can handicap the initiatives of those members of their faith communities who want to drive interfaith forward.

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The religious leaders of Scotland at their meeting in the beginning of May 2018.

How I experienced the religious leaders in Scotland

The religious leaders of Scotland meet twice a year together and a third time for a joint summit with the first minister. Interfaith Scotland is functioning as secretary for those meetings. I personally had the opportunity to participate in those meetings as a note taker. The actual content of the meetings should not be shared here but it is possible, to give some of my impressions.

1) The religious leaders seem to appreciate the cooperation with each other. The meet each other very open and respectful and a lot of faith communities large ones and small ones were represented.

2) The religious leaders are talking open with each other. At the meetings they tell openly about what is going on in their communities. As far as I could witness it there seems to be a true base of trust between them.

3) The religious leaders cooperate with each other. At points that concern all/some of the faith communities they work together. For example were most of the face communities and their representatives involved in an event about the risks of climate change at the Scottish Parliament some weeks ago or they show solidarity if one faith communities suffers from certain problems.

That the  leaders of the faith communities are working so good and smoothly together is not usual, especially on a world wide perspective and Scotland can be proud about the process of cooperation which has been made in the last years.

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What does a national Interfaith Organisation do?

Two weeks ago I blogged about what local interfaith groups in Scotland are doing. Today I’m telling a bit more about what Interfaith Scotland as a national interfaith organisation is doing.

The obvious differences between the local interfaith groups and Interfaith Scotland is the area they are working in (Interfaith Scotland in the whole of Scotland and during cooperations even abroad) and also that Interfaith Scotland as a charity has some paid staff, while the local interfaith groups are run on a complete voluntary basis.

Structure of Interfaith Scotland

Interfaith Scotland is a member organisation. Faith Communities can become members or associated members of Interfaith Scotland. A list of all actual members can be found here.

Interfaith Scotland is a charity, which gets it’s funding through membership fees and applying for funding from different authorities, mainly the Scottish government. Interfaith Scotland got a board of trustees, where the major faith communities of Scotland (Buddhism, Baha’i, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism) as well as the women interfaith groups and the local interfaith groups are represented. For the year of young people the board also co-opted a young person. A list of the members of the board can be found at:

http://www.interfaithscotland.org/about-us/ 

But what is actually Interfaith Scotland doing?

Scottish Interfaith Week

Interfaith Week is an invention by Interfaith Scotland. Some years ago the other parts of the UK joined in in celebrating Interfaith Week. Thanks to the local interfaith groups and the different faith communities there are events happening during Scottish Interfaith Week in every region of the country. Scottish Interfaith Week always has a theme. Last year’s theme was “Creativity and the Arts” and this year’s theme will be “Connecting Generations”. If you are interested in organising an event for Scottish Interfaith Week you can already start thinking about what you would like to do about this theme. There is also an art competition for schools every year during Scottish Interfaith Week.

Interfaith Week takes always place in November and more can be found at:

http://scottishinterfaithweek.org

Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD)

Since quite a while Interfaith Scotland is organising the national Holocaust Memorial Day event for Scotland in January. The event is always in a different council area of Scotland. This year’s event was in Glasgow. The event remembers the victims of the Holocaust and subsequent genocides. Usually high representatives from politics, faith communities and other parts of the society are present and survivors or relatives of survivors are speaking. Around HMD there is an intense programme for schools going on and the younger generation is also involved in the official HMD programme. Especially in times when minorities are still suffering from Hate Crimes it’s important to remember the Holocaust and work together so that horrors like the Holocaust can’t never happen again.

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Supporting local interfaith groups

One main task of Interfaith Scotland is to support the local interfaith groups. Those voluntary run groups with members of different faith communities are support by Interfaith Scotland through different ways. For activities during Scottish Interfaith Week they can get a small financial support as well as materials about the theme (like information, presentations, dialogue questions, event ideas), which can be used for events. From time to time staff members of Interfaith Scotland are travelling around the country to visit some of the interfaith groups, to see if they need any special support, if there are certain problems on the local level and also to learn from them about their activities. Local Interfaith Groups get also invited to an Annual Networking Seminar, where they can meet members of other interfaith groups. The groups also get a platform on Interfaith Scotland’s website and in the annual newsletter. If people want to found a new group in a region where no local interfaith group exists (so for example last year in the Scottish Borders) Interfaith Scotland helps with this by for example organising the first meetings of the new group and contacting the different faith communities in the region.

Religious Leaders meetings

As part of the work with the Scottish faith communities Interfaith Scotland is the secretary for the regular meetings of the religious leaders two times a year (one in spring and one in autumn). Usually one of the faith communities hosts the events. To witness one of their meetings was one of the most interesting experience during my time here and it was really good to see how the religious leaders were treating each other very open and respectful.

Summit with First Minister

In addition to the two meetings of the religious leaders, Interfaith Scotland also brings together the religious leaders and the First Minister for a summit once a year. I think it is really important that the government connects with all the different faith communities and this meeting is an important part of this.

School workshops

Interfaith Scotland offers different kinds of workshops for schools of all levels. For example it is possible to bring representatives from different faith communities to schools so the students have the possibility to talk to people of different faiths rather than just reading about their religion. Especially (but not only) for schools in less diverse areas, this is a great opportunity. Another possible workshop is to bring boxes with religious objects to the schools, so the children can explore the religions by exploring typical objects. The third option is that a staff member of Interfaith Scotland is coming to a school and giving a presentation at a school assembly or in a class and to have activities for example about “why interfaith dialogue is important”.

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Youth programme

Not only during the Year of Young People, but especially now, the work with young people is important for Interfaith Scotland. Examples for this kind of work are the Youth Conference, which is taking place tomorrow in St Andrews or the Christian-Muslim Scotland-Rwanda exchange programme, which was taking place last September. For the coming time Interfaith Scotland has even employed a youth worker, who is going run some activities for young people such as an interfaith youth retreat.

SAFE (Scotland Abroad Faith Exchange)

Even with the main focus of it’s work on Scotland Interfaith Scotland is also doing some international work. This year Interfaith Scotland is participating in two Erasmus+ projects, funded by the European Comission, working together with charities from several other European countries. Last month the director of Interfaith Scotland was in New Zealand and visited different interfaith organisations there and even spoke in the parliament about the interfaith work in Scotland.

In very little countries in the world interfaith work is as good organised and well supported as in Scotland and so it is good to let other’s learn from the Scottish experiences and to learn from the experiences similar organisations gain in their countries in an often more difficult surrounding.

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Dialogue for Members

Interfaith Scotland is organising special dialogue session for it’s members. One example can be the dialogue event about “Identity and Belonging” last autumn.

Cooperation with Police Scotland and other authorities

There is a very close cooperation between Interfaith Scotland and authorities like Police Scotland. This results on the one hand in training session in religious awareness, which Interfaith Scotland is delivering and on the other hand in intense dialogue in the prevention of conflicts as well in how to respond for example on religious motivated hate crimes or potential terror attacks from any kind of extremists.  

Cooperation with other Interfaith bodies

Interfaith Scotland also cooperates also with other interfaith organisations. This can be on the regional level, for example the cooperation with Edinburgh Interfaith Association and Interfaith Glasgow, or on the Scottish national level, for example with the Interreligious Council of the Roman-Catholic bishops conference, or on the wider level, eg with the Inter Faith Network for the UK.

Training Sessions

Interfaith Scotland is providing training sessions for different groups. Often those sessions are about how to deal with the needs of different religious groups or how to prevent discrimination against people because of their religion. Last week I had the opportunity to participate in one very interesting training day about how to tackle (religious) hate speech in youth group settings.

Publications

Interfaith Scotland also publicises materials, which can be found on its website.

Every year Interfaith Scotland publicises a Newsletter where stories about the last year’s activities are shared. The actual Newsletter was just published this month and can be downloaded here.

Interfaith Scotland has also accounts on facebook and twitter, so people can follow the different activities.

I hope this article could give you a good insight into the widespread work of Interfaith Scotland as a national interfaith organisation.

Holocaust Memorial Day 2018

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Tomorrow is Holocaust Memorial Day. Because of that a lot of HMD events are organized these days all over the world. The National Scottish Memorial event was organized by Interfaith Scotland on Wednesday. It was a successful, moving and dignified event. In the centre of the evening we heard two stories about the Russian city Rostov-on-Don. We heard about how the Nazis massacred the Jewish population with mobile gas chambers. We heard also how Feodor Michalichenko a young man, saved and protected a young boy (7 years old), who later became the chief-rabbi of Israel, in the Concentration Camp of Buchenwald. We saw a drama and listened to music performed by Glaswegian school children. We heard from young people about their trips to Auschwitz and Rwanda. The First Minister of Scotland, the Lord Provost of Glasgow, the chair of the national Holocaust Memorial Day Trust were involved in the programme as well as Holocaust survivers, guests from Rostov-on-Don, representatives of the different victim groups in the Holocaust and representatives of Scottish Jewish communities and other faith communities.

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I have to admit before the event, especially in the beginning of the planning from September onwards, I was a bit sceptical, if it was possible to have this kind of event with so many involved groups in a dignified way. My fear was that I, as someone who was raised in a country where remembering the Holocaust is very present in the political and social discussions, might have different expectations about a Holocaust Memorial Day event, than people outside of Germany. About some of my thoughts I wrote in this blog in my article from 8th September 2017. In the end I was satisfied with the way how the event went.

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There is only one question I have very ambivalent feeling about: Is it right to remember “subsequent” genocides together with the Holocaust?

On the one hand I totally agree that every genocide is horrible and worth remembering. For the person who is shot to death I might not make a huge difference if they were killed by a German, a Cambodian or a Serbian soldier or if they were killed by their neighbour in Germany, Dafur or Rwanda. Everyone in the world should know about this genocides and everyone should work hard so that this list doesn’t become longer and longer. So again it is definitely worth and important to remember all the different genocides and maybe it is an mistake (but even understandable) that German remembering culture is so concentrated on remembering the Holocaust.

But there are three questions that make me doubt about combining the remembering of the Holocaust with the remembering of the “subsequent genocides”.

  1. Isn’t the Holocaust a singularity?

From my point of view this question must be answered yes. Not only is the total number of victims higher than in the other remembered genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Dafur. From everything I know the other genocides (and that might be much to little in the end) the highly industrialised way of organising and conduction of the killing in Nazi Germany is a significant difference to the other genocides. Where else did such a bureaucratical way of killing millions of people exist?

  1. Does remembering the Holocaust together with other genocides relativize the Holocaust (and the other genocides)?

In Germany the persons who say “Well there were horrible genocides in other places in the world as well” have usually a right wing (extremist)/neo nazi background. Those voices come often together with appeals to change the remembering culture away from a focus on the German guilt towards a more patriotic/nationalist view onto German history. This relativistic attitude is very dangerous and even, when I don’t believe anyone at the official Holocaust Memorial Day event in Scotland or somewhere else in the UK has this attitude, there is the danger of seeing the Holocaust as “just one of many bad events in history”. And even if the remembering is done in a way that doesn’t relativize the Holocaust I see the danger of relativizing the other genocides. The Holocaust with it’s millions of deaths and the different groups of victims (besides the genocide of the Jewish population, there were persons with disabilities, LGBT, Roma and political opponents of the regime killed) looks always larger than the other genocides and it could make people think about Bosnia, Cambodia, Dafur or Rwanda: “Well at least it was not as worse as the Holcoaust”.

  1. When remembering genocides why only “subsequent” genocides?

Of course not every killing of people fits the official criteria of a genocide and not always is it easy to draw the exact line between a genocide and other crimes of mass murder. But there other, at least “genocide-like”, events which happened before the Holocaust. One example are the crimes of the Germans against the Ovaherero and Nama in Namibia between 1904-1908 – already with Concentration Camps and the death of half of the population of those two people. Another example would be the crimes against the Armenian population in the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1918. Other examples could be the killing of large parts of native populations in the Americas and other parts of the world during the age of colonization.

Because of those three questions I still have my doubts whether it is good or not to combine the remembrance of the Holocaust with the remembering of the different genocides. But in the end it might be much more important that those events are remembered than the question if they should be remembered separately or all together.

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