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This article is a personal reflection on the Commission on Religion and Belief’s Public Hearing in Belfast by Liran Morav.

In recent years questions on religion, belief and British identity have achieved increased prominence in the public debate. In all spheres of public life, religion and belief present challenging questions that need urgent answering: What should be the status of religious schools? What are the limits of religious expression? What is the desired balance between security and religious freedom? What is the responsibility of the media towards religious groups? What is the status of religion vis-à-vis the British state and British national identity? No easy answers exist, and yet it is necessary to reflect on such questions if a more harmonious British society is what we are after. Debate cannot only take place in academic and legal ivory towers. It must also take place on the ground, and involve people and communities who face these questions on a daily basis.

On 26 June, the Commission on Religion and Belief organised a public hearing in Belfast to hear what Belfast’s civic and faith community leaders had to say about religion, belief and British identity in Northern Ireland. The hearing was chaired by Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, who also chairs the Commission as a whole.

The hearing took place against the background of Pastor James McConnell’s controversial sermon in Whitewell Tabernade Church, Belfast, where he branded Islam as “Satanic” and added that he did not trust Muslims in Britain. Northern Ireland’s first minister, Peter Robinson, later defended Pastor McConnell’s against critics who accused the Pastor of inciting hate crimes.

When it came to the Commission’s day hearing in Belfast, participants were far from oblivious to this situation. The Muslim faith leaders at the hearing all agreed that there were dangerous levels of ignorance about Islam in Northern Ireland. Much of the blame, they said, lay with the media. They said the media in Northern Ireland present an over-simplified picture of Islam. Too often the media mentions Islam solely in the context of discussions about religious extremism.

Christian faith leaders involved in interfaith work echoed these concerns, stating that the local Northern Irish media only covered religious issues when religious conflict afflicted their communities. “It is rare to see media coverage of successful interfaith activities”, they complained.

Other faith leaders in the hearing reported a disturbing increase in hate crimes in Northern Ireland. Notwithstanding legally effective legislation against religious discrimination and intolerance in Northern Ireland, several participants pointed out that it’s the enforcement of this legislation that is ineffective

The picture given by the participants, however, was not all grim. The majority of participants at the hearing agreed that Northern Ireland had made tremendous progress towards religious coexistence since the cessation of The Troubles in 1998. Most faith community leaders reported being involved in various interfaith projects that successfully promoted inter-religious dialogue and coexistence in Northern Ireland. It is remarkable to see so much devotion to inter-community dialogue in a society that was until very recently mired in religious strife.

The hearing in Belfast was a unique opportunity for Commissioners to consider the challenges and successes of religious coexistence in a society renowned for its religious divisions. The contributions of the different participants in the in hearing enriched the Commission’s work, and will be taken into consideration when the Commission produces its final report in the summer of 2015.

The Commission encourages anyone to contribute to its inquiry. Individuals with interesting thoughts and experiences to share on religion and belief in the UK are encouraged to submit a written response to the Commission’s national consultation: http://www.corab.org.uk/

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