Government criticised for shutting down Inter Faith Network after nearly 40 years

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Government criticised for shutting down Inter Faith Network after nearly 40 years

Charity with deep links to Jewish and other faith bodies announces closure following Michael Gove's decision to withdraw funding

Lee Harpin is the Jewish News's political editor

Michael Gove said in January he was 'minded' to withdraw an offer of funding made to IFN more than six months earlier
Michael Gove said in January he was 'minded' to withdraw an offer of funding made to IFN more than six months earlier

The government has been accused of shutting down the Inter Faith Network, an umbrella group which has deep links with Jewish organisations, at an “extraordinarily stupid” time.

Inter Faith Network, founded in 1987 to promote good relations between people of different faiths across the UK, confirmed on Thursday that is to close.

Communities secretary Michael Gove last month said he was “minded to withdraw” government funding, worth about £150,000, for the IFN after the appointment of Hassan Joudi, a former deputy secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), as a trustee.

It is understood that the government made continued funding of IFN contingent on the charity not having Joudi as a trustee.

The MCB has membership from more than 500 mosques, Muslim schools and charities. In 2009, the Labour government broke ties with it over accusations its leaders supported violence against Israel. However, Labour restored relations in 2010. Though the charity’s leadership has since changed, the current Conservative government has refused to engage with it.

IFN has a policy of not commenting on overseas events and has not put out any statements on the Middle East.

Answering questions in the Commons on the decision, communities minister Felicity Buchan said the government would continue supporting other charities that promote interfaith dialogue but told MPs the MCB member’s appointment “poses a reputational risk to government”.

Tory former minister Theresa Villiers was among the MPs who this week described the decision to withdraw funding as “regrettable”.

The Chipping Barnet MP said: “Surely we can find a compromise to keep the IFN in business? Because they do some incredibly valuable work in fostering respect and mutual understanding between different faith groups.” She added that she had been contacted by Esmond Rosen, president of the Barnet Multi-Faith Forum and one of the IFN’s member bodies, who had “expressed concern” about its closure.

Dr Harriet Crabtree (wearing scarf), executive director of the Inter Faith Network, with representatives of member bodies

Marie van der Zyl, president of the Board of Deputies, Rabbi David Mason and Rabbi Warren Elf of the Faith Network for Manchester are among the many communal figures to have been involved in IFN events. From its early days, IFN has sought input across breadth of Jewish representation, from Progressive to Orthodox. The late rabbis Hugo Gryn, of the Reform movement, and Rabbi Lord Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi, were both frequently consulted. The Board of Deputies and the Muslim Jewish Forum Greater Manchester are among the IFN’s members, as are bodies including Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist and Druid organisations.

The respected Woolf Institute in Cambridge is among the IFN’s 15 academic and educational members and its founder-president, Dr Edward Kessler, gave a presentation to the IFN in January about the work of the institute in the context of inter-faith relations since the 7 October Hamas terrorist attack on Israel, including a webinar, ‘How to keep talking’.

Rabbi Mark Solomon condemned the government’s actions

Rabbi Mark Solomon, interfaith consultant for Liberal Judaism and rabbi of Edinburgh and Leicester Liberal communities, said of IFN’s closure: “It is disgusting that this is happening. Shame on the morally and spiritually bankrupt government that is inflicting such a grave and unnecessary injury on our fragile interfaith institutions, which are needed more than ever.”

Dr Harriet Crabtree, the IFN’s executive director for the past 16 years, said: “It is sad, and deeply concerning, that the work of the Inter Faith Network for the UK should come to an end – just at a time when that is more needed than ever.  The trustees and staff will be working to try and ensure that its legacy is well captured and preserved for others to build on in the coming years.”

Laura Marks, the founder of Mitzvah Day and an interfaith advocate and activist, said: “The loss of the IFN is tragic.  I know that there were tensions with government regarding membership but ultimately we desperately need a national, government funded body working on community cohesion.

“Interfaith relations are not something fluffy or optional – they are an integral part of the fabric of civil society.  In the current climate, with mistrust of people who are ‘different’ rampant (especially Jews and Muslims), the loss of the only national structure specifically working in the field seems at best, short-sighted.”

In Thursday’s Commons exchanges, Labour’s Sir Stephen Timms said the government was shutting down the IFN at an “extraordinarily stupid” time, referencing that it came a day after the chaos in parliament over the Gaza vote.

Bob Blackman, the influential Conservative backbencher also criticised the pointing out that the IFN had been crucial in bringing together smaller faith groups  for dialogue as well as the main religions.

Labour MP Barry Sheerman said of the funding withdrawal: “It’s the wrong time, and the wrong move.” He pleaded with the minister, saying: “Please, please, for the good of our country and for community relations, will the government think again?” Buchan replied: “As I have said, interfaith work is very important, and we are funding a number of organisations to do that interfaith work.”

Shadow communities minister Liz Twist said interfaith dialogue is now “more important than ever”, given recent events such as “the war and the violence in Gaza”.

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