By Carol Kuruvilla
"Religion can be part of the solution, too."
Inter Faith Week has been celebrated in the UK since 2009. But this year, the terrorist attacks that gripped Paris last Friday gave the campaign a sense of urgency.
More than 350 interfaith events have taken place in England, Northern Ireland and Wales through Saturday, November 21. The dates were planned far in advance, but the week couldn't have come at a better time for members of the East London Mosque.
Salman Farsi, a spokesman for the East End mosque, said that for years his house of worship has been a target for far right groups.
“Often global events related to terrorism causes a spike in hate mail and physical attacks on members of our community,” Farsi told The Huffington Post.
The mosque threw open its doors on Wednesday for a full-day Islam Awareness Course that had been in the works for some time. About 16 non-Muslims attended, including government workers, college diversity staff, local social workers and teachers. They were taught about Islam's intellectual history, the history of Muslims in Britain and the incredible diversity of beliefs and denominations within the religion.
According to course organizer Juber Hussain, many also had questions about Sharia law, and Islam's stance on divorce, inheritance and polygamy. Hussain said the participants came away from the program with an idea of how complex and varied Islam is throughout the world.
Across Great Britain, these moments of interfaith encounter were mirrored in churches, synagogues, mosques, universities and many other venues. There were interfaith pilgrimages, photography competitions, afternoon teas, panel discussions, and community music and arts festivals. Primary schools arranged visits to local houses of worship and universities held interfaith community service projects.
This concerted and national effort was possible because the Inter Faith Network, the organization that produces Inter Faith Week, has the support of the nation's top faith bodies. The Network acts as an umbrella group for 66 member bodies, including academic, local, national and community organizations.
Events like Inter Faith Week are a vital part of keeping Britain's increasingly multiracial society together, Vivian Wineman, the network's co-chair, said.
"Interfaith is valuable not just for bringing faiths together, but also for community cohesion," Wineman told the Huffington Post. "It's about having the infrastructure in place where the faiths are already in dialogue with each other. Because when you've got a crisis like Paris, you don't have time at that stage to build those links."
The challenge, however, is the self-selection bias that can often come with these kinds of efforts. Wineman admitted that it's tough to reach parts of the community that aren't inclined to show up to one of the Week's events -- those who harbor racist, anti-Muslim or anti-Semitic beliefs, for example, or those who fear that interfaith dialogue would in some way weaken their own faith. These are, arguably, the people who may need to hear the message of interfaith unity the most.
His advice is to reach out to religious leaders who are favorably inclined to interfaith dialogue, in the hopes that the message will percolate back to their communities. When people see their religious leaders in dialogue with people of other faiths, it tends to improve the atmosphere, he said.
"It's not easy. If you go up to someone who is Islamophobic, you're not going to turn him around in his shoes after a conversation," Wineman said. "But you can change the environment that he's operating in."
These challenges were on the minds of the leaders of Three Faiths Forum (3FF), one of the national interfaith groups that are members of the Inter Faith Network. For Inter Faith Week, 3FF produced an Interfaith Summit in London, a first for the 18-year-old organization. It was important to the young organizers of the event, many of whom were graduates of 3FF's ParliaMentors leadership program, to include workshops that encouraged people to ask genuine questions about other traditions -- and perhaps learn more about their own faith.
"People need to get out of their comfort zones," 25-year-old Aaron D'Souza told Huff Post. "Not just religion to religion, but within religions."
D'Souza, who identifies as Roman Catholic, said that the interfaith encounters he's had through 3FF have forced him to think about Catholicism more deeply. When people asked him questions about Christianity that he didn't have answers to, he'd have to go home and read up on the subject. And because he's learned about other people's religions, he said he's also been more prone to speaking up when he hears someone else talk negatively about another faith tradition.
Anna Connell-Smith, a 26-year-old co-organizer for the event, said that it was important for her that the summit had an open, "festival" atmosphere, where young people in particular would feel welcome.
"It's important that this is coming from young people, and that others see that our generation is embracing the idea of interfaith," Connell-Smith told HuffPost.
The interfaith community at the London School of Economics chose to organize their Inter Faith Week event around helping Syrian refugees. A Giving Tree set up on the university's campus invited passers-by to join in efforts to create welcome kits to donate to newly arrived refugees. Students agreed to buy small items-- like socks, underwear, and t-shirts -- and bring the goods back to LSE's Faith Centre to be assembled into kits.
Tim Rogers, president of the school's Christian Union, took a pledge leaf this week and brought back a pack of deodorant. He told HuffPost that he was confident that most people of faith who are worried about the refugee crisis will only have compassion when they look across the English Channel to Calais, where many migrants are gathered and yearning for a chance at new life in the UK.
"Some people say religion is the problem," Rogers said. "But religion can be part of the solution, too."