Interfaith Youth Conference in St Andrews

Last Saturday was definitely one of the highlights of my time in Scotland. It was the day of the National Interfaith Youth Conference we were planning since last September. The conference had been planned and hold in cooperation of Interfaith Scotland with the student run Coexistence Initiative at the University of St Andrews. The theme of the conference was “Radicalisation and Reconciliation” and about 80 young people from different regions of Scotland came. In total eight speakers had been invited to the conference in advance and, a bit surprisingly for our planning committee, agreed to come. So we had a very full programme with very interesting talks. After each of the talks there was time for questions and answers and some kind of discussion. Some of the speakers also asked questions to the crowd, while others were mainly giving their presentations.

Here are my personal experiences and thoughts about the speeches:

  1. Dr Leah Robinson

33 - Leah Robinson

After the official welcome to the conference through representatives of Interfaith Scotland, the Coexistence Initiative and the university chaplaincy Leah Robinson, lecturer in Practical Theology at Edinburgh University was speaking. Her talk gave a very good frame for the following day and provoked thoughts I had in mind when listening to the talks of the other speakers. I mainly remember that she stressed that real reconciliation “is much more than drinking tea together” and itself a very radical act. People that in the popular mind are icons of reconciliation, such as Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela were actual very radical in their positions themselves and have only been “domesticated” by the popular mind to quote givers for Social Media posts. Her speech was a strong pledge to reclaim the word “radical”, so that it does not describe terrorist but those who are campaigning and fighting for more justice and love in the world.

  1. Imam Usama Hasan

33 - Quilliam

The next speaker was Imam Usama Hasan, Head of Islamic Studies at Quilliam International, a counter-extremist organisation. Having been a “foreign fighter” against Communist forces in Afghanistan in the beginning of the 1990s he could tell about his own radicalisation process. I found it in particular impressive to hear how the experience of racism when growing up in London “radicalised” him and how he while still studying in Cambridge in his holidays could go to Afghanistan and fight the “Jihad”. From my point of view it was important at a conference with this theme to hear someone with his own story of “radicalisation”, who went through this process in a time, when he was about the age of most of the participants at the conference.

  1. Mahrukh Shaukat and Gigha Lennox

33 - Rwanda

Before the lunch break we heard the story of two young Scottish women, who participated in the Interfaith youth exchange programme with Rwanda last year. I had heard presentations about this programme before, but in my opinion it was special to hear them in this setting at the youth conference. Besides facts about the exchange programme and the Rwanda genocide especially the stories about how they met survivors and perpetrators and how both groups are working together in the process of reconciliation was highly impressive.

During the lunch break people were mingling with each other, so this was not only time for food and drinks, but also for informal dialogue and networking.

  1. Jane Bentley

The session following the lunch break was a very special one. It was not mainly a talk, even if there was some input about what dialogue is, but a music session where everyone at the conference participated. Putting such a session into the programme of an otherwise relatively academic conference was a kind of a risk but it worked out really well and the people enjoyed it very much (according to my impression at the conference and the feedback they gave afterwards). It shows that dialogue is not only happening through thinking and talking (even if those are my two favourites of doing it), but also through creating something together.

A short impression of the session can be found here.

  1. Mike Jervis

33 - Miek Jervis

The following speaker works with an organisation called the “Active Change Foundation”. They work with radicalised people to reintegrate them into society, as well as with their families and with perpetrators and victims of gang violence. Their approach is a very practical one but they also advise a lot of governments. He described very clear and powerful how the process of radicalisation/recruiting (whether for gangs or for terrorist organisations) is going on and gave insight into some of the cases his organisation has worked with. The insight into this praxis was really helpful to understand a bit better how (young) people from privileged backgrounds are seduced to join those kind of groups.

  1. Ameed Versace

33 - Ameed Versace

This talk was one of the biggest surprise for me. Ameed, who grew up in Glasgow and is part of the Shia community here, talked about how his father was killed in a hate crime many years ago and how he is dealing with this without hating himself and so letting the hate win.

  1. Andrew Marin

33 - Andrew Marrin

Andrew is a former advisor of President Obama and a current advisor of the United Nations in Iraq and on the same time a lecturer at the University of St Andrews. Having started his carrier with social work in Chicago, he talked about his experiences with the process of reconciliation. From my point of view fitting very well together with the talk of Leah Robinson in the beginning of the conference he said thought provoking sentences such as “we don’t have to agree in order to love” or that victims and perpetrators need to work together for sustainable social change, even if they maybe can’t forgive each other. Especially for the often very harmony seeking people in the field of interfaith religions in my opinion it was important to stress this point that cooperation is possible, even without the ability to forgive and that reconciliation is a process.

  1. Stewart Weaver

33 - place for hope

As the last speaker of the conference the project “Place for Hope” was presented shortly. They do important work of facilitating reconciliation processes between individuals and/or faith communities.

 

For me this conference was a really positive experience because of three causes:

  1. The speakers were in all their different approaches very thought provoking. Having left university three years ago myself it was great to hear challenging speeches and to re-think some ideas.
  2. The conference was organised by young people (the Coexistence Initiative) for young people and therefor it were the questions and ideas the young people were interested in, that were the theme of the conference. It showed again very well, that young people know very well what they are interested in and that those are often the more “radical” themes than those maybe the older generation would suggest for a conference like this one.
  3. Personally it was very good for me to have one important project during my time here, where I’m involved in all the planning, then experiencing the actual event and even the evaluation of the event.

Thank you very much for everyone, who was involved in making the conference a success!

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The long way to peace between faiths

This week I visited the local interfaith group in fife. They told me about their activities and we discussed how Interfaith Scotland could support their work. One thing they told me was that they built a peace garden in the large park in Kirkcaldy. The project needed a lot of resources and it took about 4 years until it was finished in 2012. Even if I couldn’t visit the garden it is good to know, that there is a place where all the different religions are calling for peace in the world. Hearing about the peace garden made me think about all the conflicts which have existed and still exists between the different faiths. And I started thinking about how religious groups, which have been enemies for a long time, can become peaceful partners.

I know at least one example where that happened after a nearly 2.000 years history of persecution. I’m from Germany and a protestant Christian, so the example comes from the history of my own faith. In the so called New Testament (a part of the Christian Bible) there are scripture which have very strong anti-Jewish tendencies. From a historical point of view that’s completely understandable because the first Christians split up from the Jewish community and there were a lot of conflicts between both religious groups during the first centuries of their common history. After Christianity became the main religion of the Roman Empire Christians had the possibility to supress Jews and they did it because of the anti-Jewish tendency in the New Testament. Not all Christians did this but over the centuries it became a common sense in Christian theology that Jews were the “enemies of God”. During the middle-ages and the modern times it continuously came to pogroms against Jews in the Christian areas of the world. Even great Christian theologians such as Martin Luther the “founder” of Protestantism had strong anti-Jewish opinions. During the 19th century the theological antijudaism became an important radix for antisemitism.  Even if the first Christians and the Christian theologians during 2000 years of Christian history are not directly responsible for the gas chambers in Auschwitz, so have they prepared the way for it. Even if there were Christians in Germany during to Nazi regime who fought against Hitler and the Nazis most of the Christians did not and during the Weimar Republic the most Nazi supporting areas in Germany were those which were traditional protestant. After the war, the protestant church in Germany (and in other western countries as well) started slowly to change their theological thinking about Jews. They remembered all the things these two faiths have in common and the shared believes.

Today in the protestant church in Germany it is a real no-go to say that Jews must become Christians to be in a relationship to god. The Jewish faith is accepted as an equal way to god – not only because of political and historical reasons but even for theological ones too. The most important step on the way from persecuting and killing Jews to accepting them as equal partners was that the Christian churches admitted their guilt for the persecution of Jews. My (regional) church where I am going to work as minister from next summer changed its basic article in 1991. This text is the basis for everything what happens in the church. Every minister in the church is getting ordained on this article. Since 1991 the article ends with two new sentences:

“For blindness and guilt called for repentance, she (the church) again testifies to the permanent election of the Jews and God’s covenant with them. The confession of Jesus Christ includes this testimony.” ( „Aus Blindheit und Schuld zur Umkehr gerufen bezeugt sie (die EKHN) neu die bleibende Erwählung der Juden und Gottes Bund mit ihnen. Das Bekenntnis zu Jesus Christus schließt dieses Zeugnis ein.“)

I think it is not usual that a religious group has the permanent election of another religious group as one of their main articles of believe but it gives me hope. It gives me the hope that the different religious faiths can accept another as equal partners without a repeating of the history between Christians and Jews. It would mean that Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Bahais and all the other faiths would confess everything they done to each other. It would mean that they admit their guilt and that they forgive each other. Maybe it’s idealistic but I hope it will happen. I think this is a task for every believer and everyone can do something for this. The “normal people” can try to build good relationships to their neighbours from different faiths. Have a chat when they meet, ask how they feel, let their children play together… The theologians must rethink their theological positions towards each other. The example of the Christian-Jewish relationship shows me that this is possible, even if it is a long and difficult journey.

What do you think? Is peace and reconciliation between the religions possible?

 

If I write about the “protestant church in Germany” I mean the EKD. If I write about “my (regional) church I mean the EKHN.