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Religious charities debate how to work with people of other faiths

Christian, Muslim and Jewish development charities this week debated how they should work with people of other religions, at an unprecedented conference on interfaith humanitarian work.

Christian Aid, Islamic Relief and World Jewish Relief are already involved in such work in places such as Mindanao in the Philippines, Kashmir in Pakistan and in Southern Sudan but want to learn more from each others’ experiences.

Their Keeping Faith in Development conference was held less than two months after the murder of Gayle Williams, a development worker in Afghanistan, highlighted the extremely sensitive and important issues raised by the presence of faith-based organisations in communities of people with different religions.

Christian Aid’s Inter-Community Initiatives Manager Nigel Varndell, helped to initiate the conference. He said: ‘We wanted to dispel the myths that we only work with people of our faith. We also wanted to convince people of all faiths of the value of interfaith work, and to share examples of best practice.

“We will only end world poverty by working with people who have faiths other than our own – so let’s do it right.”

Christian Aid, World Jewish Relief and Islamic Relief jointly organised the conference, which attracted some 60 delegates and was hosted by the Woolf Institute of Abrahamic Faiths in Cambridge, on 1st and 2nd December.

Delegates recognised that some people within their own faith communities in Britain are strongly opposed to the idea of ‘their’ charities funding work in developing countries with people of other religions. However, there was a sense that if British believers were told more about examples of such work, then they would be more supportive.

Ivan Lewis MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Development (DFID), told the conference he believed that faith-based charities had a distinctive contribution to make in international development work. In particular, he said that their identity as people of faith could help them to gain the trust of local communities with their own, albeit different, religious beliefs.

He also urged faith-based development organisations to do more to keep poor countries’ need for aid high on the public agenda, and warned that aid’s critics were likely to increasingly demand evidence of its effectiveness. “We have a responsibility to demonstrate maximum effectiveness,” said Mr Lewis.

Lessons which emerged in Cambridge, for those doing interfaith development work, included: DO talk to local religious leaders, tell them about what you are planning in their community and listen to their responses; DO be open with the community as a whole about the faith-based identity of your organisation and address any fears or concerns that people may have about it; DO ensure that before you start work in a community, you understand its culture and customs.

Delegates heard detailed presentations about each charity’s interfaith work.Makki Mohamed, Head of the Africa Region at Islamic Relief, explained how his organisation has overcome the challenges of working in southern Sudan – a predominantly animist and Christian area. 

Maguid A. Maruhom, head of the Muslim faith-based organisation Ummah fi Salaam, described the Christian Aid-funded, peace building work of his organisation with another, Catholic NGO, in the troubled Mindanao region of the Philippines.

Muhammad Maqsood Sheikh, who comes from the Azad Kashmir state of Pakistan, told delegates about the relief and development work of his charity, Human Aid Focus, in the region, funded by World Jewish Relief.

The humanitarian charities involved in the conference work with people of all religious beliefs and none, and neither preach nor attempt religious conversion.

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 Notes to Editors:

  1. Christian Aidworks in some of the world's poorest communities in more than 50 countries. It acts where the need is greatest, regardless of religion, helping people build the life they deserve.
  2. Islamic Reliefis an international relief and development charity which aims to alleviate the suffering of the world’s poorest people. As well as responding to disasters and emergencies, it promotes sustainable economic and social development by working with local communities - regardless of race, religion or gender.
  3. World Jewish Relief(WJR) provides a crucial lifeline to Jewish and non-Jewish people in need around the world. Through our commitment to long-term programmes which strive to enhance community infrastructure, people can go on to build a better future for themselves.
  4. The Woolf Institute of Abrahamic Faithsis an independent educational charity comprising the Centre for Jewish-Christian Relations and theCentre for Muslim-Jewish Relations.Through teaching, research and dialogue they are dedicated to the academic study of these respective fields. They aim to overcome prejudice and intolerance between Jews, Christians and Muslims, and to establish a more positive basis for relations.

For more information, interviews and pictures, contact:Rachel Bairdon 0207 523 2446 and rbaird@christian-aid.org