Thursday, 26 November 2009


This article appears in today's Leicester Mercury:
Big rise in cases of forced marriage, Leicestershire police reveal
Police are dealing with more than twice as many cases involving forced marriages as they were last year.
Officers in Leicestershire say the rise shows awareness of the issue has increased, and people have more confidence in coming forward.
The force currently has 84 cases on its system, compared to 38 this time last year.
The figures were revealed yesterday as Leicester hosted a major national conference on forced marriages and honour violence to mark the first anniversary of the introduction of Forced Marriage Protection Orders.
The law enables courts to stop forced marriages, to order people to hand over passports and reveal the whereabouts of a person thought to be at risk, and prevent someone being taken abroad.
It has been used twice by Leicestershire police since it came into force.
Detective Inspector Pete Williams said: "It is a very valuable tool for us to have. It does not involve a criminal case but it can achieve the same ends as that. It can keep someone safe and with their family.
"Not everyone wants their family to face criminal prosecution. They just don't want the marriage."
Justice Minister Bridget Prentice told the conference, at police headquarters in Enderby, how the orders had worked and what still needed to be done.
A total of 86 have been handed out nationally since November last year. The predicted number was "about 50" said the minister.
"That shows just how much this legislation was needed, and how much of a reason there was to have it," she added.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Lost in Loughborough

To Loughborough, to conduct an “Equality and Diversity Good Practice Healthcheck” with Voluntary Action Charnwood. This is one of the responsibilities I have as part of my duties in REDP’s “Mainstreaming Equality” project: to have written this healthcheck document, visit the different “voluntary action” bureaux etc in Leicestershire and Rutland to go through the questionnaire. The questionnaire would seem rather daunting in size (at some 56 pages) but it’s been designed in such a way that when participants answer a section on one of the equality strands –age (young people and old people have their own sections), disability, gender (and gender identity), race, religion or belief, sexual orientation – those answers can be taken as good for the other sections. Of course, each one of these strands has its own particular questions that don’t necessarily relate to the others (e.g. about physical access for disability issues, translation of materials in the race section). But for the most part, the questions are such that what works for one equality strand works for all. When I first went out to conduct this healthcheck, it took more than two hours. Now I’ve got it down to about 45 minutes. Just as well, really, as I mange to get lost in Loughborough and am late for my appointment at John Storer House with Neil Lambert, CEO of Voluntary Action Charnwood. When I get off the train, I decide to save time and effort by getting on the link bus that should take me to the town centre. But I don’t recognise the town centre (it’s smaller and passes by quicker than I expected) and stay on the bus all the way out to Loughborough University – and back again. Thankfully, Neil is an affable and sympathetic fellow who gives me a warm and good-humoured welcome.


This letter appears in today's Leicester Mercury:
It's in the genes
Looking at religion with, possibly, a more practical slant than the recent inter-faith week my impression is that:
Societies where a majority have a personal religious belief tend to prosper. Societies where organised religions are in charge tend to ossify. Societies where religious belief is largely absent tend to decay in an excess of personal self-indulgence.
It is said that the majority of people are "hard-wired" to believe in a deity. If so, then Darwin's theory of the "survival of the fittest genes" suggests that we should not discourage such belief. In terms of evolution, it is the most successful adaptation and the most highly evolved.
Russ Ball, Leicester

Tuesday, 24 November 2009


This evening, to the Peepul Centre for the Diversity Reception of Leicestershire and Rutland Probation Trust. This is the third year I've attended this event and I'm intrigued by a radical change in format. It's in a different room (the main public performance area) the catering is minimal compared to what we've been treated to before but, most significantly, rather than the standard PowerPoint presentation of facts and figures, outputs and outcomes, we're treated to a drama, "The Journey of an Offender Through the Criminal Justice System". This is done by The Facilitator Agency: one woman on stage acting out the story of "Amanda", who is involved in a violent incident in a pub, then finds herself going through the system - arrested, bailed, tried, sentenced, imprisoned, released, rehabilitated. At various points along this path, the story stops momentarily, so that representatives of all the agencies she would encounter, sitting as a panel at the side of the stage, comment on what would be happening to her. This is a really unusual and stimulating format, which allows a feeling of involvement and participation for just about everyone in the room.


Today I should have been attending a meeting of the Regional Infrastructure Consortium (RIC) in Oakham this morning with Laura Horton, on behalf of the Regional Equality and Diversity Partnership (REDP). I should also have been delivering an afternoon's training on Religion or Belief to CCP in Leicester. But Gracie has swine flu and has to stay off school. Her mum, stepdad, her nan and I have divvied up the week among us and there's no one else can have her today but me, so she's been dropped off at my house. She was pretty rough two days ago when I last saw her, but she got the anti-virals quickly and she's quite a bit better today. REDP has arranged for the afternoon's training to be delivered by Manny Barot, who has worked for the Beth-Shalom Holocaust Centre in Newark. I've sent my own PowerPoint presentation to Manny and passed on to him the leaflets, postcards, bookmarks etc that I'd normally use on such an occasion. We talk on the phone for half an hour or so this morning so there's a high level of agreement on the format and purpose of the presentation. I'm happy that he's the one who has been asked to do this in my stead.

Sunday, 22 November 2009


Here we are on Sunday 22 November, a day of hard-won ease and reflection (which is the decorous way of saying it's been a day of flaking out). Nevertheless, today offers me the chance to present a few interesting facts and figures to round off our exhibition in Highcross for National Inter Faith Week 2009 and to offer a well-deserved thanks to all those people who played their part in making this event a success.

There were 99 individual slots on the rota; we had volunteers for 98 of those slots before the week started - though that one last elusive slot (between 4 and 6 on Wednesday afternoon) seemed determined to remain unfilled.

We gave out freebies (leaflets, bookmark, keyring, sticker) only to people who stopped (or slowed down) long enough to show their interest in the display; by the end of the week, we'd given away around 900 leaflets to such people.

We had a total of 57 different people volunteering on the stall across the week (59 if you count my children helping put it up on the first day, but I volunteered them!) This, in itself, was a testimony to the unity and diversity in action, right in front of the people of Leicester.

Highcross management told us to expect up to 400,000 "footfalls" over the course of the week; there was no way to count this, but I'm willing to to take their word for it!

So, thanks to all those who helped put up the exhibition, helped take it down and helped keep it going at all times in between: Ros Adam, Imran Ali, Dana Bagshaw, Grace Ballentyne, Harry Ballentyne, Irshad Baqui, Michelle Benn, Denise Bergman, Sumaya Budkovska, Raheema Caratella, Clare Carr, Rohini Corfield, Minou Cortazzi, Judith Devons, Amanda Fitton, Hannah Fitton, Monica Glover, Zee Zee Heine, Derek Hood, Doreen Hood, Laura Horton, David Hurwich, Farida Ijaz, Humeyra Seylan Izhar, Angela Jagger, Penny Jones, Kirti Joshi, Susthama Kim, Gwyneth Little, Jan Macdonald, Scott Macdonald, Lizzie Maitland, Sheila Markham, Ramesh Mashru, Stephanie Maud, Barry Naylor, Tony Nelson, Jai Parmar, Surinder Sandhu, Maureen Sier, Noel Singh, Ian Snaith, Manjula Sood, Chris Starbuck, Sudana, Gursharan Thandi, Kaspalita Thompson, Narendra Waghela, Abdul Waheed, Elizabeth Wayne, Simon Williams, Liz Wilson, Arthur Winner, Barbara Winner, Teresa Wright. If I have missed anyone out, my apologies - I'll keep updating this until everyone who should be included is included. Thanks to the management people at Highcross (Michael Holland, Suzie Wood and Steve Farmer) who were generous and helpful beyond all expectation. Thanks to Mukesh Barot and Melanie Wright at East Midlands Ambulance Service for organising their contribution toward the cost of the display; to the Faiths Forum for the East Midlands for their financial contribution too; Jason King, Alistair Bell and their team at in Charles Street for speedy, efficient, sympathetic and creative service in getting the display and website ready on time; to Gloria Jean's Coffee, for providing a safe haven (even that one day when I managed to tip half a regular latte all over my hand!) Their iced Bakewell tart saved my day more than once. And last but not least, an enormous vote of thanks to Julie-Ann Heath. If it weren't for Julie-Ann and her powers of gentle persuasion - which she worked on me as much as on anyone else - none of this would have happened.

I thought of doing this blog, just to cover this week. Should I continue? I think I will, for a while at least ...

Saturday, 21 November 2009


Final day of our exhibition in Highcross. Well, if I thought I'd lost track of the days, there really couldn't be any doubt that this is Saturday! Highcross is much busier, which shows itself in one unexpected way: while no one has bumped into the exhibition all this week (well, none that I saw anyway) today it felt like it had a bullseye painted on it! In one 20-minute period, four or five people collide with it, including one boy who almost runs right through the banners into the space in the middle and a young mum with a buggy, who hits one of the banners so hard, it spins right round 90 degrees!

Having got on the phone to the Leicester Mercury yesterday evening, a photographer from the paper arrives today. He seems only to want to shoot with the Christian stall in the background. When I ask him why he's doing this, he replies, "Well that's the religion bit, isn't it?" I persuade him at least to pull back a bit, so at least he gets the Buddhist and Hindu banners on either side of the Christian one. He takes some photos of me and Raheyma as if we're chatting and looking at some of the literature. In the end, however, the Mercury ends up printing neither the pictures nor the article I had sent in the day before.

An interesting visitor to the stall this afternoon: one Bhasker Solanki, a cameraman / Senior Producer for the BBC, who lives in Leicester. He's co-founder of the Rushey Mead Foundation, through which the school of that name in Leicester sponsors a school in Gujarat. Bhasker phoned me a couple of weeks ago when he'd heard about the upcoming exhibition, offering some material for it. We couldn't make use of it on this occasion but hopefully we'll be able to arrange for some way to use it at another time. We had a very interesting chat, which promises some good things for the future.

The very last visitor to the stall (when most of the banners had already been taken down and put away) was a woman carrying a wet umbrella, who stood right up against the wrap-around poster on the drum stand and got it all wet. This results in a great big splodge where the ink has run! Thankfully, we've been using these wrap-round posters as stop-gaps as they're the wrong size. We've just been using them for this week, and they'll be replaced by proper ones shortly. We'll have to be careful, though, when lending these items out to anyone - will have to give clear instructions that they should not be allowed to get wet!

The exhibition ends at seven o’clock. Two of us are able to dismantle the exhibition, pack it away and get it all back to the Welcome Centre by eight. It's raining cats and dogs all the while and just before we quit Highcross, staff are positioning big yellow buckets near the spot we've just left.

Here are some comments from the reflective journal, by some of those who helped out with the exhibition on this final day:
“I’m very happy that Council of Faiths organised such an event and brought faiths to public eyes. The place (Highcross) is the best place to promote community cohesion as so many people pass by with no interest or with an interest but look around and realise so many different faiths can live together happily.”

“This is the first time that something so visible for members of the public has been organised. I feel strongly people should learn about each faith and discover how they are connected to each other as they all come from the same source. Hope this is the start of many other events for members of the public.”

“First comment: people (the visitors) to Highcross are aiming at shopping and slightly less interested in stopping. However they do glance at the exhibition when walking. Secondly there were some visitors who were not tolerant to the exposure of LCOF during this week.”

“Much busier today, and more people stopping to chat.... One child, a boy aged about eight years, stopped and read each banner intently. Children this age seem to be hungry for knowledge wherever they find it.”
As well as this reflective journal which has been used by those volunteering on the exhibition, we've kept a visitors book in which members of the public could leave their comments. There are 17 pages filled with these. Some follow similar lines, with many examples of "Brilliant!", "Well done!", "Very good!", "Lovely!", "Fabulous!"and so on - welcome as they are. Some run a bit longer: "Beautiful info, people and display", ""Great idea to understand others and bring people together"; "It's great to see the multi faith. Religion is great - we can all be friends"; "Fantastic, an exemplary display of oneness, community cohesion and respect. Bravo"; "Great concept - I hope it flourishes!"; "Really good to see religions coming together!". Two visitors from London commented, "Good discussion. Should not be funded by taxpayers" (it wasn't, but they didn't leave contact details so we could tell them that). Some comments were left by teachers who happened to be passing by ("Good positive posters. I would love to have A4 sized copies for my citizenship teaching please"). We were visited by a number of schools, the biggest group being from the Leicester Community Islamic School on the Tuesday. Lots of young people wrote in the visitors book during the week. My personal favourite, from one of them, simply says "Thanks babes!"

Friday, 20 November 2009

National Inter Faith Week: day 6

The end is in sight. This morning I feel tired enough to be looking forward to our exhibition being over, but am also dreading it at the same time. I've really enjoyed this week. There are one or two things that I would wish had turned out differently, but only one or two (and I'm not prepared to share them publicly - anyone interested will have to figure them out for themselves!)

Tony Nelson has written the "First Person" column in today's Leicester Mercury, the sixth article the paper has published to mark National Inter Faith Week. Tony is a former President of the Leicester Hebrew Congregation and is currently Vice Chair of Leicester Council of Faiths. His piece is entitled "Learning about other faiths can curb prejudice" which is a nicely practical angle on one of the reasons for this special week.

Here are some of the thoughts of some of the volunteers, from today's reflective journal:

“Very nice encounters with several people including a group of Muslim young men who were very warm and supportive of interfaith work. Thank you – lots of smiles.”

“A sign of hope for everybody seeing the faiths working together. A privilege to be part of it.”

“It’s been a very interesting experience – watching people’s reaction to the exhibition. Some just glance as they go by, others stop and read and a few stop and talk. People seem to be walking with a purpose this Friday evening. Perhaps they have less inclination to stop compared with other times of day.”

“Very interesting experience – positive reaction from passers-by. More should be done like this throughout the year at different venues.”


This article appears in today's Leicester Mercury:
Leicester mosque serves up a treat for homeless
About 70 homeless people, refugees and asylum seekers were provided with support, advice and a hot meal at Leicester Central Mosque.
The Conduit Street building held an open day this week as part of national Islam Awareness Week.
The annual campaign aims to raise awareness of issues in the community which affect people of any religion.
In previous years it has included climate change and childcare.
On Monday people seeking shelter were invited into the mosque for free guidance by charities including City of Sanctuary and Refugee Action.
Hot meals were dished up by the Pakistan Youth And Community Association.
Visitors were also provided with bags of fresh fruit and vegetables and toiletries to take away.
Islam Awareness Week is run by the Islamic Society of Britain and coordinated in Leicester by volunteer Sughra Ahmed.
She said: "It has been about people of faith and non-faith collaborating to provide a service for those in need."
Other events taking place have included a ladies' fundraising meal for Rainbows.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

National Inter Faith Week: day 5

I spend an hour on our stall in Highcross between 0900 and 1000. Suzie Wood (Highcross’s Commercialisation Co-ordinator) is there, taking a few photographs for their own records. She tells me that she’s impressed by how organised and professional we’ve been. I’m glad that’s the sort of impression we’ve made.

Here are some of the things we’ve had on the stall as giveaways: a sticker (kids love stickers!), blue, credit card size, with our name, our logo and the motto, “We have faith in Leicester!”; a plastic keyring, plum coloured, with our logo on one side and “We have faith in Leicester!” on the other; a bookmark which is virtually a scaled-down version of the Council of Faiths banner, with our website address on one side. If we’d been able to get a little more funding for this week, I’d have loved to have done this for all the faiths banners. That’s something for the future.

I phone Noel Singh to ask if we can do anything more to get decent coverage for the week’s events in the Leicester Mercury. So far, they have only mentioned the upcoming football match at Judgemeadow Community College. We agree a plan of action between the two of us.

Today’s “First Person” column in the Leicester Mercury is by Resham Singh Sandhu, offering the Sikh perspective. It’s as forthright and focused as Resham himself with some insightful things to say about the present and some challenging things to say about the future.

This is the first day I’m away from the display. It's mostly been "hands on" all week so far, but not today. We expect a visit from the newly-formed Students Council for RE at 1215. Must find out how that goes!

The Council of Faiths is holding a social event this evening in the Welcome Centre as part of its programme for National Inter Faith Week. I can’t be there as I have a work engagement. I’ve made a game for this evening though, a quiz of 20 questions that require everyone to get up and move around, talk to each other and interact if they’re going to answer the questions. I email this to Julie-Ann Heath and Gursharan Thandi, who are in charge of the event. Must find out how that goes too!

Here are a few notes from today's reflective journal, written by some of those volunteering on the exhibition:

“I have enjoyed participating in this initiative and having the opportunity to engage with people and discuss multifaith issues. Both of the periods I covered were in the morning and fairly quiet, people generally sharing little direct interest, although those that have, on the whole spent some time and asking questions and sharing their thoughts. This, it seems to me, is a necessary part of faith work and I am impressed with the exhibition and the other inter-faith activities that have been organised.”

“This has been a really good experience, speaking to the public and promoting the importance of inter-faith understanding and awareness.”

“A wonderful event to be involved in. An opportunity for the community of Leicester to see what religion has to offer and that it isn’t about ‘conversion’ and ‘preaching’. I personally, on the two occasions that I was able to help out, had very interesting conversations with individuals, covering many of the diverse communities of Leicester. Some very soft, nice conversations and some a little more diehard and aggressive. However, no one I spoke to can deny the benefits of the faith communities working together to promote the opportunities for community cohesion in the city.”
On checking before bedtime, the Council of Faiths has 48 fans on Facebook.

LGA Equality & Diversity conference

After dropping in at our exhibition in Highcross for an hour or so first thing this morning, I take the train to Melton, to attend the Equality and Diversity Conference of the Local Government Association at PERA (photo above). I’m going there as one of the partner members of the Regional Equality and Diversity Partnership (REDP) along with Laura Horton, Project Manager for our Mainstreaming Equality Project. The conference covers the main equality strands: age, disability, gender, race, religion or belief, and sexual orientation. There are contributions from ACAS and the Equality and Human Rights Commission among others. The conference considers how provisions in the Equality Bill will affect the duties of local government at all levels of engagement with those who are recipients of their services, and reflects on how it might change employment law.


This letter appears in today's Leicester Mercury:
Faith and the planet
I am both surprised and saddened to read MEP Roger Helmer's view of the Church of England as having abandoned faith in favour of what he calls "the new religion of climate alarmism" ("Get back to the Gospel", Mailbox, November 16).
Why, if that is his view, did he recently accept an invitation to debate climate change in Leicester Cathedral, when he completely failed to rehearse his extraordinary view that the earth is cooling or to assert his view that his hosts had lost their faith?
Was this merely courtesy or was it because the opportunity for a platform meant more to him than exposing his views to scrutiny or challenge from a live audience?
In fact, the world's religions are united on this issue because they have a strong sense of the earth as God's creation: a fragile planet created as a gift for humans to care for rather than to exploit. That is why climate change so clearly reveals the gap between a religious world-view and secular capitalism.
That is why without faith in God the risk of human beings destroying their own habitat is very high.
And that is why all people of faith will be praying earnestly for the forthcoming Copenhagen Summit on global warming.
Rt Rev Tim Stevens, Bishop of Leicester

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Many Faiths: One Future

To Leicester College, Freemens Park Campus, this lunchtime for their student conference, “Many Faiths: One Future”. This has been a long time in the planning and is being held in collaboration with the Council of Faiths. They have about 100 students, not just from Leicester College, but from the three other FE colleges in the city: Gateway College, Regent College and Wyggeston & Queen Elizabeth I College. There’s a nice lunch (I arrive in time to get some of the food, thankfully), the conference is formally opened by our Lord Mayor (a busy man for this cause) and on the stage are Dr Don Brooks (Vice Principal, Quality and Planning, Leicester College), Councillor Manjula Sood (Deputy Mayor of Leicester and Chair of the Council of Faiths), Minou Cortazzi (past Chair of the Council of Faiths) and Maureen Sier (Inter Faith Development Officer for the Scottish Government) who is the keynote speaker, as she was  at the launch of the week in County Hall on Monday evening. Introductions are done by Vinod Chadusama (Inclusion Coordinator, Student Services, Leicester College). Vinod has been the main man behind this event (along with Sharen Kang, the college’s Faiths and Enrichment Coordinator). Any success here should be credited to them. Naim sings again, we have our speakers, then the students break into groups around the tables to discuss and consult. A sizable group get up and walk out together just after 1430, just before Maureen finishes speaking; when asked why they’re leaving, one says “It’s Wednesday; we always go home at half-two on Wednesday.” Some more take the opportunity to sneak away during the break, but enough stay behind to make for good discussions. I can’t stay for that, as I’m off back to the exhibition in Highcross.

National Inter Faith Week: day 4

Here’s how the arrangements work for those volunteering to help out on the display at Highcross. No more than three people on duty at any time, in two hour shifts. Anyone can do more than one shift, some people do a few on the trot. Across the whole week, that’s 99 individual slots. By the time the exhibition started on Sunday, all but one of those slots was filled, by 56 different people. A small number have had to pull out because of illness or because of unexpected work, study or family commitments; a smaller number just haven’t turned up. I’ve tried to ask people whom I know and trust to do the job right, but I’ve had to take a few people on others' recommendation. On the whole it’s all worked out fine. There’s been no time where everyone on the exhibition has come from just one faith community. The way we’ve arranged the rota has itself gone some way to meeting one of the goals of National Inter Faith Week: to increase understanding between people of religious and non-religious belief. We’ve provided some guidelines for how volunteers should conduct themselves on the stall, but for the most part, folk can be left alone to get on with the work.

This morning is a nice example of that mix, in a more visible form than usual, with an Anglican priest and two Buddhists taking a turn on the display.

Today’s “First Person” column in the Leicester Mercury is by Allan Hayes, President of Leicester Secular Society. He's written a very strong and positive piece that fits in with the tone of National Inter Faith Week without compromising his or the society's humanist principles.

I never look at the "Thoughts for the Day" in the Mercury; I've never been a fan of that sort of roadside pulpit approach. I should though, from a professional point of view. So I read today's. There's always two pieces: one from the Old or New Testament and another from one of the other religions in the city. Today's "other" is a lovely quote from Paris Talks by 'Abdu'l-Bahá: "It is my fervent prayer that the star of the East will shed its brilliant rays on the Western world, and that the people of the West may arise in strength, earnestness and courage, to help their brethren in the East."

Here are some of the comments written in the reflective journal by volunteers on the exhibition today:

“It was a valuable way to spend a morning with faith colleagues, witnessing to our unity in the midst of this temple of consumerism and materialism. Well worth doing and I hope it touches many people.”

“Thank you very much for organising this event. I liked very much the presentation. I have been here in quiet time, but still feel the importance of it. It would be great when the panels will go to other places, schools … Thank you.”

“Thoroughly enjoyed being part of this event. I hope there will be many more to come. Received great interest and many people were friendly.”

“Thanks for the opportunity to present unity in diversity. Although few people stopped to talk for long, many passers-by did read the quotes on the faith banners and many others will have subliminally registered the stand and its message. I’m sure events like this help to sustain Leicester’s reputation as a peaceful, cohesive and diverse city.”

“I’ve really appreciated the opportunity to meet, talk to, work with other people from faith groups in Leicester. Only a few passers-by interested to stop and take time to talk, but interesting conversations with those who did. A very worthwhile initiative.”

“Delighted to be involved in this initiative – small steps in sharing faith for better understanding and co-operation. Wish more people were less suspicious when seeing the word ‘faith’!”

“Thank you for inviting me to be part of this inter-faith initiative. Although many passed by only a few people stopped. The couple of conversations I did have, however, with people of different faiths were very enlightening – quality not quantity!”

“Delighted to be part of something so positive. Many people took leaflets and stopped to ask questions. Many positive comments about the display. I think many people thought we were there to convert them, which of course isn’t true and that’s why they were suspicious to come and ask questions. It was an enlightening experience for me and I would happily be part of something like this again.”

“It’s been a very interesting and, if I may use the word, ‘comforting’ week. I have loved the fact that so many people have stopped to read the banners and so many young people have shown an interest in faith.”
At the end of the evening, I have dinner in the Holiday Inn with Maureen, debriefing on the past few days and reminiscing about our shared experiences and common friends in our younger days back in Scotland.


Alan Hayes has written the First Person column in today's Leicester Mercury:
United efforts to solve problems in our society
In the fourth article to mark Inter Faith Week, humanist Allan Hayes makes the case for secularism
It is very welcome that this first National Inter Faith Week aims "to increase understanding between people of religious and non-religious belief". Both sides have much to contribute. There have been encouraging developments in Leicestershire this year: the city's new religious education syllabus includes humanism, and both city and county Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education (SACREs) now have humanist representatives. The Secondary Student's RE conference, aimed at forming a Student RE Council, was a stimulating experience with students from all backgrounds getting to know one another, and humanists and the non-religious generally were urged to join the council. But we need to go beyond understanding, to working together on the problems that we see in our society.
Leicester Secular Society, founded in 1851, is the oldest secular society in the world; it arose in the 19th century from the struggles, shared with non-conformists, Jews and Catholics, for freedom of belief, education and expression, and for democracy and equal respect – often, it must be said, against the Established Church. The notable tolerance of our country is due in large part to such struggles, as are the Human Rights Declarations and our recent equality legislation.
The society's vision combines secularism, emphasising equality and separation of state and religion, and humanism, emphasising a view of life based solely on humanity, with a fierce defence of free thought; it has a long tradition of dialogue and engagement with others; its talks, discussions and social events, are open to all.
Many of our concerns and interests are shared with people in the religions: the Sea of Faith Network studies and promotes religious faith "as a human construct"; the Accord Coalition, including Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews and Humanists, is concerned about division and discrimination in our educational system; the think-tank Ekklesia wishes to see separation of state and religion.
We must guard against being blindly divided by religious/non-religious classifications.
Secularism protects the right to belong to a religion, the right not to belong to one, and the right to get on with our life without such a classification. It encourages co-operation by removing the possibility that the state will take sides. The American and Indian constitutions are both secular.
Humanism, by viewing humanity as our own responsibility, and religions and beliefs as our own creations, allows us to be proud of what we have achieved and draw on all our experience; and by seeing ourselves as one humanity and part of the natural world it urges us to care for one another and join in protecting our planet. We will have different, sometimes conflicting, views, but we must offer friendship and goodwill in making a better life for all.

Allan Hayes is president of Leicester Secular Society

Tuesday, 17 November 2009


A few of my personal highlights on the exhibition today: An elderly man, holding the hand of a small boy, no more than four or five years old, They took a few minutes to walk by the display, while the older man pointed out various things, speaking to the boy in their own language. A young couple walked quickly by the display, hand in hand. The guy pointed to the Jain banner, “Jains! I’m a Jain!” he said, pointing to himself (pointing to his heart, if I'm being specific). The girl pointed to the next banner: “And I’m Jewish!” she said. They turned to each other and both went, “Oh!” with smiles on their faces, as if this were the first time they had ever spoken about this to each other, smiled and kept walking. Then, in synchronised fashion, they sucked on their flavoured coffees and walked on. And, staying with Jains, a group of four teenagers came to the stall, one shy girl in the front, the other three arranged behind her. She told me that she's a Jain, but had never been able to explain her faith to her friends. Did we have a Jain leaflet? We were happy to give them one each and they walked off slowly, reading them.

After inexplicably failing to get my hands on a copy of the Leicester Mercury yesterday, I make sure I get it first thing this morning. In today’s “First Person” column for National Inter Faith Week, Dr Siri Ram Chhabra “outlines the tenets of Hinduism. Dr Chhabra has been secretary of Geeta Bhawan, a Hindu temple-cum- community centre in Loughborough, for the last 30 years. The Mercury carries a disappointingly thin and silly article about National Inter Faith Week itself, which mentions only the football match at Judgemeadow College on Saturday. Something will have to be done about that before the end of the week.

The goals of National Inter Faith Week are: to strengthen good inter faith relations at all levels; to increase awareness of the different and distinct faith communities in the UK, in particular celebrating and building on the contribution which their members make to their neighbourhoods and to wider society; and to increase understanding between people of religious and non-religious belief. It’s useful to bear them in mind when reflecting on this exhibition and related activities, today and in other blog entries.

Much inter faith activity is undoubtedly “preaching to the choir” (what John Florance picked upon in his radio interview with us on Sunday morning). Conferences, seminars, workshops or retreats for clergy, professional religious people, people focused on religion to the exclusion of many other things in their lives, academics or earnest enquirers. This is necessary and there’s plenty of it going on during National Inter Faith Week of course. But your regular punter doesn’t get a look in there. This exhibition in Highcross is a rare opportunity for people in Leicester to find out who the major faith communities are in their city and to see them represented side by side.

Since we’re in such a busy place, we couldn’t put up a display that requires lots of reading, or would need explanation by the people fronting the stall. Of course we’re happy for visitors to take their time going round the banners and for them to stop and chat, but this exhibition also has to work quickly for those in a hurry. It wouldn’t be right to say that we’ve selected soundbites from each of the faiths (that would be trivialising it). But we have had to choose quotations that passers-by can “get” without too much effort. And they have to be positive, uplifting, inspirational, not preachy, or assert any one religion’s superiority over any others. They should offer some ancient, eternal or tried-and-tested truth that is relevant to our world today. Phew: I don’t believe in making things easy, clearly! We want people to be able to walk past, slow their pace a little in the middle of all this bustle, catch a glimpse of the names of the faiths, their symbols and the quotations and go, “Never heard of them before”, “Oh, I like that” or “That’s nice”; to read something and think “That’s alright by me”, “I never knew they believed that” or “That’s what I’ve always thought”. We’ve used core texts from each of the faiths as our sources, so that people of different denominations, sects or interpretations within the faiths can feel confident that something authoritative is being presented. This also avoids any problem of visitors to the exhibition asking, “Where did you get that quote? Who said that?” or protesting that what we’ve got doesn’t properly represent their religion.

The banners are stylistically keyed to the leaflets on each faith that we’ve had for about 18 months now. At first glance, the banners appear to be the front of the leaflets, expanded to be six feet tall. The banners are linked to the leaflets by colour, typography and design, so there’s a sense of continuity between them. Here are the quotations on each of the banners:

“Let your vision be world-embracing, rather than confined to your own self” (Bahá’í – from Bahá’u’lláh’s “Tablet of the World”)
“Hatreds never cease through hatred in this world, through love alone they cease. This is eternal law.” (Buddhist – from the Dhamapadda)

“God is love. Those who live in love live in God and God lives in them.” (Christian – from the First Epistle of John)

“Where there is joy there is creation. Where there is no joy there is no creation. Know the nature of joy” (Hindu – from the Maitri Upanishad)

“Do not injure, oppress, enslave, insult, torment, torture or kill any living being” (Jain – from Jain scripture)

“Devote yourselves to justice; aid the oppressed. Uphold the rights of the orphan, defend the cause of the widow.” (Jewish – from the Book of Isaiah)

“We have created you from a male and a female and made you into different nations and tribes so that you may know each other.” (Muslim – from the Qur’án)

“A place in God’s court can only be attained if we do service to others in the world.” (Sikh – from the Guru Granth Sahib)
The banners are arranged alphabetically by the name of the faith community. I do as much s possible alphabetically in this job. The alphabet is God’s gift for impartiality and even-handedness. Then no one can question why so-and-so is here instead of there. One visitor to the display was delighted to see the Jewish banner alongside the Muslim one. “However did you think of that? Was it deliberate? Are you trying to make a point here?” he asked me. “No mate, it’s alphabetical”, I replied. But then, sometimes things like that are just a wee gift from above.

Monday, 16 November 2009


This evening is the official launch of National Inter Faith Week for the city and county at County Hall, Glenfield (seat of Leicestershire County Council). Since I stayed at Highcross for the change of shifts at 1800, I arrive at County Hall after most of the food and drink has gone. Thanks to Sugra Ahmed, for guiding me to some vegetarian items that were left. Thankfully there aren't many vegetarian Muslims here this evening.

This is a well supported meeting, in the Council Chamber, in the presence of the Leader of the County Council, Councillor Roger Wilson, the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress of Leicester (for the second time today) and the Bishop of Leicester. It’s chaired by the Venerable Paul Hackwood, Archdeacon of Loughborough and Chair of the Interfaith Forum for Leicestershire. There’s an interesting mix of speakers and topics: Islam Awareness Week; Faiths Forum for the East Midlands; an “inter-faith recipe book”; an extract from a panto staged by Loughborough Council of Faiths; the signing of an “Inter-Faith Charter” by faith community leaders and representatives. Resham Singh Sandhu (Vice-Chair of Leicestershire Inter-Faith Forum and former Chair of Leicester Council of Faiths) delivers a typically rousing closing address. The evening concludes with a solo musical performance by Naim Cortazzi. I find out later that this was the first time a guitar had ever been wielded in the Council Chamber at County Hall!

Noel Singh gets a well-deserved ovation for his work in co-ordinating the week’s events and for being directly involved in organising this evening. In his own presentation, introducing the County Council’s small grants for community cohesion work, he's clearly conscious of the schedule running over by almost half an hour; I’ve never heard him speak so fast!

The keynote speaker is Dr Maureen Sier, Interfaith Development Officer for the Scottish Government. Scotland has had its own annual National Inter Faith Week for several years (theirs starts next week) and Maureen was speaking about the Scottish experience, how it has developed over the years and what we might learn from it as we hold the first such week nationally in England. I’ve known Maureen for over 30 years and I’m glad she was able to come down from Glasgow to speak at this event. She’s given me a lot of encouragement and support in the two-and-a-half years I’ve been at Leicester Council of Faiths and has been something of a touchstone to me in this important work that I'm fortunate enough to be doing.


Today is the first full day of our exhibition at Highcross for Inter Faith Week. Lord Mayor of Leicester, Cllr Roger Blackmore, and Lady Mayoress, Mrs Hilary Blackmore, officially open the exhibition at 12 noon. It's a low-key affair, but entirely appropriate given the setting. Chair of the Council of Faiths, Deputy Lord Mayor Councillor Manjula Sood, is present, as are our immediate past Chair, Minou Cortazzi and Vice-Chair, Tony Nelson. No ribbon to cut, no big scissors to wield, but the Lord Mayor makes a short supportive speech to the dozen or so gathered around him. Manjula says a few words too. We look round the display together, talk about the messages on the banners, enjoy some positive chat and have a few photographs taken. John Coster, from Citizens’ Eye Community News Agency takes several which he posts to Flickr within a couple of hours.

We're joined by Sarah Harrison, City Centre Director, who spoke recently to a full meeting of the Council of Faiths about her work. The Council of Faiths would seem to be a natural ally in what she’s trying to do in the ongoing regeneration of Leicester city centre.

A few words about the exhibition itself would be appropriate here: Julie-Ann Heath, “Workplace Chaplain” at the Cathedral, made the initial contact that led to us having this exhibition. She's a member of Leicester Council of Faiths and brought us into contact with the management at Highcross some six months ago or more, when they expressed an interest in having a display about the city’s faith communities. Without going through all the ins-and-outs of it, we were given this space for National Inter Faith Week to put ourselves on show to the public. We agreed informally with Highcross management on a number of terms, none of which were especially onerous:
  • that we should be even-handed, promoting all the faiths involved equally, not appearing to favour one faith over another;
  • that we should avoid dispute and contention among volunteers fronting the display or between those on the display and members of the public who might stop and look;
  • that the message of the display should be positive;
  • that the exhibition material should be harmonious in style and of professional design and production;
  • that it should be accessible to members of the public using Highcross;
  • that the content should say something relevant to the lives of the people who see it on show.

We were told that we could expect up to 400,000 footfalls over the week! Whatever else it might be, it’ll be the biggest single exposure to the people of Leicester of the Council of Faiths, its member communities and the relationship between them. There’s more to say about the exhibition, but I’ll stretch that out over the posts for this week.

The Leicester Mercury runs the second column in its First Person series for National Inter Faith Week, but I couldn’t get my hands on a copy today (too busy even to step into a newsagents – can anyone really be that busy?) so I don’t know who is featured or what they said. I’ll catch up with that later in the week. I’m disappointed to note that the First Person column isn’t available electronically on the Leicester Mercury’s website. I’d like to be able to link to that occasionally.

From today's entries in the reflective journal, written by one of the volunteers on the stall:
“The banners are great! So far most pass by with a passing glance, but some do slow down and read and some even ask questions – a step in the right direction!”


This article appears in today's Leicester Mercury:
Islam week aims to raise awareness
People from different backgrounds are being encouraged to get to know each other and celebrate what they have in common this week.
Today marks the start of Islam Awareness Week, which aims to improve community relations and raise money for charity. It is also the first ever Inter Faith Week in England.
Sughra Ahmed, co-ordinator of the week's activities in Leicester, said: "It's really important that we understand each other better, but most importantly that we put our words into practice – we have to go beyond talk and actually do things to make our city better."
From 11am to 3pm today at Leicester Central Mosque, in Conduit Street, food and shelter will be offered to asylum seekers and homeless people.
Fundraising events are planned and Canadian musician Dawud Wharnsby will perform at city schools.
Muslim women are encouraged to take part in an initiative called Dine at Mine and take non-Muslim friends out for an evening of traditional food and fun.


This article appears in today's Leicester Mercury:
Bowls and beliefs in national faith week
An afternoon of bowls is being staged at a leisure centre as part of national Inter Faith Week.
The short mat bowls event will be held at Whitwick's Hermitage Leisure Centre, in Silver Street, on Friday, from 3pm. It has been organised by North West Leicestershire District Council and Leicester's St Philips Centre. Organisers hope people from a variety of faiths will take part. Activities are taking place across the county this week.
Councillor Rowena Holland, equality champion at North West Leicestershire District Council, said: "We are pleased to welcome people of different beliefs to our district for this event."


This letter appears in today's Leicester Mercury:
Get back to the Gospel
Many commentators have remarked on the similarities between religion and climate alarmism.
Both are based more on faith than on evidence. Both warn of dire consequences unless we have faith and change our way of life.
The Church of England seems to have abandoned religious faith entirely and taken up the new religion of climate alarmism instead.
The children's writer GP Taylor, formerly an Anglican Minister and author of the best-selling Shadowmancer, has just announced his intention to leave the Anglican Church and join the Roman Catholics, saying that the C of E is "a sinking ship that has become the spiritual arm of New Labour".
He adds "many bishops spend more time preaching about climate change than preaching a gospel of salvation".
The recent multi-faith conference at Windsor suggests that other world religions are taking the same line on climate change.
This is particularly ironic at a time when the world is cooling, and when more and more scientists around the world are breaking cover to challenge the theory of man-made global warming.
Perhaps world religions should have more faith in God, and less in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Roger Helmer, Conservative MEP, East Midlands

Sunday, 15 November 2009


In the evening, a choice: either I go to Shree Sanatan Mandir for the last of the Diwali celebrations, or to Secular Hall, to hear Resham Singh Sandhu speak on "Sikhs in British Society". This isn't an official part of the programme for National Inter Faith Week, but it's an auspicious day for it. I imagine that most members of the Council of Faiths will be going to Shree Sanatan Mandir - and there's no denying the obvious attraction of that. I opt for supporting Resham, since I reckon he'll probably be at Secular Hall on his own. This isn't an official part of the programme for National Inter Faith Week, but it's obviously a good day to have this talk. I arrive at Secular Hall a few minutes late and Resham's already speaking, to an audience of 20 or so. He gives an eloquent and wide-ranging presentation on Sikhs' relations with British society, its people and institutions, past, present and future. He has to leave promptly, before Q&A. On the way out, he pauses to ask me, "Aren't you coming to Hindu temple?" but he doesn't wait for my answer.

I decide to stay for Q&A, in case my meagre knowledge of Sikhism might help. Noel Singh is sitting beside me and responds to questions from the perspective of being a Sikh by birth, culture and upbringing but having chosen not to follow the religion himself. A Sikh mother and daughter also speak there, mostly about gurdwaras in Leicester and a little bit about Sikh funeral practices. It's all conducted in an amiable atmosphere and several of the members of the Secular Society tell their own tales about acts of kindness and generosity shown to them personally by Sikhs at one time or another. They seem to conclude that the only trouble with Sikhism is that it's a religion and not a social movement - that they'd find it perfectly acceptable if it weren't for the fact that Sikhs believe in God. I tell them that that's their problem, rather than the Sikhs'! I leave the meeting (after tea and biscuits and the customary convivial chat with their President, Allan Hayes) with a distinctly warm feeling about this evening.


It's also day one for for our exhibition at Highcross, for Leicester Council of Faiths' new website and for this blog of course!

To BBC Radio Leicester early this chilly, misty Sunday morning, to appear live on John Florance's show, just after 0800. I'm one of three being interviewed, the others being Noel Singh (Policy Officer, Leicestershire County Council) and Shayk Ibrahim Moghra (Chair of the Muslim Council of Britain's Interfaith Committee, amongst other positions). Ibrahim will be speaking mostly about Islam Awareness Week (when I arrive at the studio, Ibrahim is already in another soundproof booth, doing an interview on that subject with BBC Radio Cambridgeshire). Noel has been coordinating NIFW events throughout the city and county, publicising them through leaflets and posters and the County Council's website.

John introduces me live as someone rejoicing "in the title of 'Quality and Diversity Officer' for Leicester Council of Faiths". I don't know what a "Quality" officer would do in the context of that organisation (or any organisation, for that matter), but I like the sound of it too much to correct him on air. Each of us is given the opportunity to respond to three questions. I speak mostly about the exhibition in Highcross, Noel about what's going on in the wider scene around the city and county, while Ibrahim gets the harder questions about differences and divisions among and between religions - which he handles adroitly and diplomatically of course. I get a chance to plug our conference at Leicester College this coming Wednesday and then it's over. We leave the studio at 0830, shake hands, wish each other good luck with our respective activities for the rest of the week and go our separate ways for now. John Florance has posted about National Inter Faith Week and its celebration in Leicester. My content on that web page is not from the radio interview, but from a written statement I'd sent in to the station (at their request) a few days earlier.

Soon after, on to Highcross, to unload our exhibition material, put up our banners and display our wares in the Lower West Mall. First of all, we go to the Welcome Centre, to get all the stuff into Clare's little car. Amazingly, it all fits, but we've left behind the map of how to find "Service Area C". Once that's located and we get the material inside Highcross through the back door. Harry and Gracie are there to help, and do their best to pitch in, despite the greater attractions of the "Nintendo House" nearby.

We're a bit behind schedule, but have the whole thing up around 1130. I think itt's rather beautiful in its simplicity and adaptability. While I'm not officially on the rota today, it's hard to pull myself away. Julie-Ann Heath, Gursharan Thandi and Amanda Fitton are there virtually all day, till Highcross shuts at 1700. They do a great job together, of course, but I hover around the display when I can drag the kids out of that Nintendo House, that is. They play Wii Sports and Super Mario Bros while I get my "brain age" checked. It's 71, apparently. The woman there tells me not to be upset about it, as most people "my age" come out around the mid-80s. Somehow, I feel neither relieved nor reassured by that.

We've provided a "reflective journal" for volunteers, in which they can record their thoughts and feelings about working with the exhibition, interacting with visitors, the reactions of those visiting etc. Excerpts from this journal will appear throughout the blog for this week, which will open it out with more than just my impressions.