On the 13th – 15th February, Islamic Unity Society volunteers were invited to an interfaith residential event at the Centre for Unity in Welwyn Garden City.
The event entitled “Multiculturalism – Interfaith – Dialogue: #DoYouCare?” was organised by the Focolare Movement, an international movement, inspired by the Gospel, working for unity in all spheres of life. This was the first time Muslims were invited to the event, so I was slightly nervous about how it would work out.
Right from the beginning we were made to feel welcome. Upon arrival, we were given a tour of the building, shown our rooms and mingled with the ever growing crowd. A seminar room was reserved during the weekend for the Islamic prayers times, and sufficient time in the event schedule to allow us to pray the five daily prayers without missing out on the event too.
A big feature of the weekend was the international feel. About 80 Christian and Muslim young adults came from all over the UK, but many had cultural roots in Scotland, Italy, Spain, Germany and the Netherlands to name a few. A large Irish group flew in from Dublin too.
The weekend started with a powerful talk from Dr Mohammad Ali Shomali, director of Islamic Centre of England, who spoke in a conference call from Paris. He encouraged us to “create opportunities of dialogue with everyone […] dialogue is what makes us human beings.”
There were two particularly moving sessions from presenter and documentary producer Angela Graham, who spoke of her own experience as a young person growing up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, and how she maintained hope and constantly sought ways to build bridges with people of other faiths and from different cultures. I could not help but make parallels with ongoing conflicts in Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe today, where multiculturalism means war and strife, rather than co-existence and mutual growth.
During the weekend we engaged in workshops on the topics of interfaith dialogue, social media and politics and civic engagement. In one breakout group I was in, we discussed how news media can, not only enhance, but also warp our perception of conflicts between cultures. We debated whether news media is a reflection of society, or if it imposes an artificial reality on society. And we argued to what extent social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have democratised news, or merely become additional sources for mainstream news.
Not everything was indoors, and on Saturday, a few of us took a walk outside to explore the local area around Welwyn Garden City and continue the dialogue. The table quiz on Saturday evening was a great way to relax after a deep and intellectually stimulating day, and I also learnt just how challenging ding bats and cryptic clues can be too.
I also attended mass on Sunday morning, and it was very eye-opening to see the aspects of congregational prayer within the Christian faith, and the similarities with functions Muslims perform in our mosques.
Overall it was very heart-warming to meet so many like-minded people of another religion, who are actively practising their faith, emphasise love and unity so highly, and are constantly seeking to create a better world through their daily actions.
IUS and Focolare have been gradually building a relationship since early 2014, organising joint textual study sessions, as well as practical initiatives such as tree planting in Hertfordshire. I hope it can continue for many years to come.
Written by Hassan Joudi
Focolare Movement: http://www.focolare.org/gb/
Islamic Unity Society: www.ius.org.uk