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.

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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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Remember, Remember …

When I wander through Glasgow I see places of remembrance all over the city. Especially soldiers from the World Wars have their monuments on many places – often marked with the symbol of the poppy. There are a lot of War monuments in Germany too, with long lists of names. Maybe I’m wrong but when I see the monuments here I have the feeling that people here have a more positive attitude towards their fallen soldiers, than in Germany. The monuments speak about them as heroes, who served their country bravely. This experience makes me thinking about remembering and remembrance culture today.

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On Monday people in the United States but also in Europe and in many other countries will remember the terror attack of 9/11. I assume everyone – at least in the Western countries – who was old enough in 2001 is remembering what he or she did the day when the planes hit in into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. People will remember the victims with religious services, with silence and tears. The terror attack on 9/11 and all terror attacks before and after this date are awful and turned innocent people to victims of violence.  It is good to remember them – especially for all the people who lost people they loved. But I’m also afraid of this remembering culture, especially if the actual US president is going ta talk at this day. Will he use the victims to produce more hate and violence? And who is remembering all the (innocent) victims of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which followed 9/11? How can people or states remember without producing more enemies?

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Von UA_Flight_175_hits_WTC_south_tower_9-11.jpeg: Flickr user TheMachineStops (Robert J. Fisch)derivative work: upstateNYer – UA_Flight_175_hits_WTC_south_tower_9-11.jpeg, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11786300

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About one week ago I participated at the first planning meeting for Holocaust Memorial Day 2018. The official Scottish event for this Day is going to be held in Glasgow this time. The planning was good and I’m sure it will be a good event. Some days later two friends from Germany visited me in Glasgow. I told them about Holocaust Memorial Day and they were very surprised that this day is not only about remembering the Holocaust but also about remembering different other genocides, eg. in Rwanda or Bosnia. Our shared feeling was that it is very difficult to do so, because from our (German) perspective the Holocaust is different. We could not imagine that Jews would accept that the Holocaust is compared or put on the same level as other historical occasions. For me and presumably the most Germans remembering the Holocaust means remembering it as a singularity, it means remembering the German guilt, it means especially remembering the suffering of Jews, even if also Disabled, LGBT, Roma and Communists were killed in the Konzentration Camps. It means that no other occasion in history is comparable with it and it means to do everything to prevent that such things are happening again.

For me it’s interesting that people in Scotland can have a more general look at the Holocaust. I’m completely convinced that the victims of Screbrenica and Rwanda must also be remembered. But it’s difficult for me to compare their dying to Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

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The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin Von K. Weisser – Selbst fotografiert, CC BY-SA 2.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12313104

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The 11th September is a special day of remembrance in my hometown Darmstadt. At night time of this day all church bells in the town are ringing. Not because of the terror attacks in the United States in 2001, but because of the bombing of Darmstadt by the Royal Airforce in 1944. 99% of the city centre were destroyed. According to official numbers about 12.000 people were killed and about 66.000 people became homeless. Remembering this attack is very difficult, because people are aware that without the bombing of Germany cities and towns it would be harder to stop Hitler and the Nazis, but it also might have killed much more people, especially women and children, than might be necessary to win the war. From my point of view a remembrance culture which cries about the victims but is also aware about the responsibility to prevent the world from another World War, another Holocaust or another 9/11 is the only appropriate way of remembering.

Remembering is never unpolitical and we all are responsible for the remembrance culture in our town, country and our world.

What do you think? How do you remember?

Are Genocides Worth Remembering?

A shortened version of this originally appeared in Scotland on Sunday on 23rd January 2016.

On 27th January Scotland, and the UK, remembers the Holocaust and other genocides.  Given the challenging financial situation in the UK, is the hosting of memorial meetings across the country a good use of Scottish or UK Government resources?  Isn’t life depressing enough without having to remember that the last 100 years has witnessed many states sponsoring the planned, systematic mass murder of their own populations including Turkey, Germany, Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and in the Darfur region of the Sudan?

Millions die every year from hunger, disease and war so why pause on 27th January and remember the Holocaust and other genocides?

In his book ‘Rwanda and Genocide in the 20th Century’, former secretary-general of Medecins Sans Frontieres, Alain Destexhe, says: “Genocide is distinguishable from all other crimes by the motivation behind it. Genocide is a crime on a different scale to all other crimes against humanity and implies an intention to completely exterminate the chosen group.  Genocide is therefore both the gravest and greatest of the crimes against humanity.”

The UN Convention on Genocide came into effect in January 1951 and it is estimated that 20 million men, women and children have died as a result of the Holocaust and other genocides in just over 100 years.  Despite a UN Convention; such shocking figures; and the now overused and under implemented words ‘never again’ the genocidal process is still allowed to develop.

So what is the point of remembering?  Is remembrance enough?   Remembering without understanding the process of genocide might well make us feel marginally better but will it prevent further genocides happening?  Surely we must find better ways of learning from remembrance and from challenging the processes of genocide whenever and wherever we see them beginning to take root.

Gregory Stanton, President of Genocide watch has identified ‘ten stages of genocide’; classification; symoblization; discrimination; dehumanization; organisation; polarization; preparation; persecution; extermination and denial. In each of these stages he has outlined what can be done to stop the advancement of the process and has stated that ‘ultimately the best antidote to genocide is popular education and the development of social and cultural tolerance for diversity’. He has further identified that ‘the movement that will end genocide must come not from international armed interventions, but rather from popular resistance to every form of discrimination; dehumanization, hate speech, and formation of hate groups…. it must rise from each of us who have the courage to challenge discrimination, hatred, and tyranny’.

Education is often put forward as a tool for building a fairer, better society and I would be the first to agree that education is crucial – but I would ask the question ‘education for what?’  The Nazi’s were extremely well educated; educational games were developed for children that encouraged hatred of the Jews; scientists developed the equipment of the death camps; social scientists developed the racist theories that underpinned the Holocaust; even the cultural education of classical music, literature and the arts were used as tools of propaganda against the Jews.  So the question again has to be asked ‘education for what’?   Do we need to have, right at the heart of our education system, the ‘social and cultural tolerance for diversity’ that is identified by Gregory Stanton as the ‘best antidote’ for genocide?

Children spend much of their lives in educational environments but just how much of that time is actually spent exploring tolerance for diversity?  Are the children of Scotland learning about cultural and religious diversity and its positive impact on society?  Are examples of best practice shared throughout the country?  Are programmes being developed for schools that really celebrate global citizenship?  As Director of a National Interfaith Dialogue organisation, Interfaith Scotland, I could ask are children learning the tools needed to successfully talk about difference and to do so with respect and openness.   Hopefully the answer to all of the above is yes but educators and Governments need to be constantly vigilant to the voices that would sow distrust and fear in society.

And what of the environment outside the classroom; what of our adult world and our ‘tolerance for diversity’?  How influenced are all of us by what we read, hear and see in the media? The media has always had a powerful role to play in the process of genocide. Historically it has been a tool used effectively in the dehumanizing stage of genocide.   So are we constantly vigilant and questioning of the stories told in our national newspapers, on TV and on the radio?   If we think of some of the recent reporting on the current refugee crisis it would be hard not to identify shocking negativity towards refugees in some national newspapers.  As far back as 2010 a Red Cross report stated that 72% of respondents in a poll said newspaper reporting about asylum seekers and refugees was negative and the public most readily associated the word scroungers with refugees.  No one can have missed the extreme language used by Katie Hopkins, columnist for the Sun Newspaper, when she described migrants as ‘cockroaches’ and ‘feral’ – similar language used in the Rwandan genocide!  Thank God the decent British public rose up and condemned her, demanding an apology.

On Holocaust Memorial Day, this Wednesday, Scotland will remember the Holocaust and other genocides.  It will embrace the theme for 2016 – ‘don’t stand by’ and will welcome to Scotland Mukesh Kapila, the former UN Ambassador to the Sudan who had the courage to blow the whistle on the genocide taking place in Darfur.  Scotland will also welcome Inge Auerbacher, who as a child survived Terezin a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia.  Of the 15,000 children who entered only 1% survived.  Mukesh and Inge, both know only too well that doing nothing to prevent discrimination, hatred and intolerance has terrible, unthinkable consequences.  Inge was a child in November 1938 when she witnessed first had ‘Kristallnacht’. She saw how Nazis torched synagogues, vandalized Jewish homes, schools and businesses, killed close to 100 Jews and in the aftermath sent 30,000 Jewish men to concentration camps.

Mukesh witnessed first-hand the atrocities committed in Darfur.  In his book ‘Against a Tide of Evil’ he tells the moving story of how in March 2004 he was sitting in his office in Khartoum writing a report for the UN about the situation unfolding in Darfur when he heard a commotion outside his office. A tall woman in torn, dirty clothes fought her way in to speak with him. Her name was Aisha. He offered her a chair but, fearing she would spoil it, she sat cross-legged on the floor. She had travelled from North Darfur, from a village near the town of Tawila, and now she told him her story. She had been in Tawila with her family on market day when Arab militia – the Janjaweed – on horseback and in vehicles stormed the marketplace. They rounded up the women and girls and raped them systematically “like it was a production line in a factory”.  Her father, husband and two sons were in the crowd as she was raped repeatedly until she passed out. Huts and trees were set alight. In the aftermath, she couldn’t find her family and fled 1,000km to Khartoum.  This was a testimony from one brave victim, sitting on the floor of his office and it was the catalyst he needed to blow the whistle, to defy his superiors and throw the story open, telling the world that “the first genocide of the 21st century” was taking place in Sudan.

In an interview with Alice Wyllie of the Scotsman Mukesh said that ‘the higher you climb in office, the more distant you become- the numbers are there but in a way the bigger the numbers, the more abstract they become. In Darfur, meeting the individual victims and perpetrators, I began to realise that each little mini situation in the big drama was utterly unique. This really came home to me when I returned to Rwanda … for the first time in 18 years. I looked at a room full of skulls and bones and, with my medical knowledge I could tell how each individual had died; a blow on the head, a machete in the back of the neck. And I realised that amidst the hundreds of thousands, each death was unique and hence each survival was unique. From that grew the idea that I wasn’t interested in speaking to the intellectuals or the policy makers. I was interested in speaking to ordinary people’.

It will be the ordinary people of Scotland that Mukesh and Inge will talk – so yes Scotland will remember but it will do so much more.  In the coming week a befitting national memorial event will be held in Falkirk; hundreds of local memorial events will take place across Scotland; thousands of school children will learn about the Holocaust and other genocides; films will be shown; dialogue events will take place; public lectures at Universities across the country will be held – and we will not forget; we will honour the victims; and we will do what we can to understand, to learn, to speak out, and to say very loudly and very clearly that yes the Holocaust and other genocides are worth remembering.

Dr. Maureen Sier, Director, Interfaith Scotland