LONDON — If there were a simple illustration of the gulf between the faith groups, it was the sight of member after member of London’s Jewish community walking through the imposing gates of the capital’s Central Mosque, offering their bags to be searched by the security guard, and being casually waved through.
“No,” he told one Jewish woman, “I don’t need to search you. I trust you.”
It’s not an answer to which Jews in Britain are accustomed. But as they walked, wide-eyed, into the airy piazza of the mosque, to greet and meet people of all faiths and none, there was a palpable relaxing of shoulders and a cheerful atmosphere.
The mosque was the first stage in a simple but charming initiative, called the Coexist Pilgrimage, devised by faith leaders in response to the attacks in Paris in January. The alumni of the Cambridge Coexist Leadership Program already knew each other. So when a rabbi – Masorti Senior Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg — and a Christian minister, the Rev Margaret Cave, put their heads together with the assistant secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, Sheikh Ibrahim Mograbi, it wasn’t hard to come up with the idea of the faith walk.
Nearly 200 Londoners, Muslims, Jews, Christians, Sikhs and Hindus, were welcomed to the mosque by its senior imam, Sheikh Khalifa Ezzat.
“We need to be together to demonstrate coexistence and tolerance,” he declared, adding that, as a religion, Islam could coexist with every faith and no faith, and that it had more in common with British values than what separated it.
‘Above our religions, ethnicities, cultures, social and financial standings, is our common humanity and respect for life, and care for God’s creation’
“Above our religions, ethnicities, cultures, social and financial standings, is our common humanity and respect for life, and care for God’s creation,” said Mograbi.
Shepherded by smiling marshals in hi-visibility purple vests, the marchers set out on their five-hour walk, which took them from the mosque to the Central Synagogue, and on to Westminster Abbey, Parliament (where they were greeted by the Speaker, John Bercow), and finally, St Thomas’s Hospital.
The dean of Coventry Cathedral, the Very Rev John Witcombe, welcomed the marchers at Westminster Abbey. He told them: “Bad things happen when good people don’t stand up to be counted. The overwhelming majority of faithful people in this country are on the side of the angels, and want to live peacefully and safely in our democratic society. Love, justice and compassion lie at the heart of all our faiths.”
The director of the Cambridge Interfaith Program, David Ford OBE, who is also Cambridge University’s Regius Professor of Divinity, warned: “The religion agenda is too often hijacked by extremists who pervert the message of their faith to meet their own political ideals.”
Ford said interfaith programs Coexist and Cambridge are “working hard to emphasize the distinctive nature of the different faiths while also celebrating their common ground and their shared imperative for peace.”
One striking aspect of the march – as far as Jews were concerned – was the participation of both Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews. The fact that Wittenberg is a Masorti rabbi and that Rabbi Barry Marcus, minister of the Central Synagogue, is Orthodox, was irrelevant. It is hard to think of another platform on which both might appear at the same time.
As Dean Witcombe joked, “Sometimes it’s easier to get over your internal differences when you are reaching out to other faiths.”
The walkers said that the march was intended to demonstrate “our fellowship across our different faiths, for though our paths may be different, our deepest values are the same.”
Wittenberg said the event should be a symbol of freedom and “deepest respect” for all religions.
They were joined by the Mayor of Camden, Councilor Lazzaro Pietragnoli, who has chosen the interfaith group, Three Faiths Forum (consisting of Jews, Muslims and Christians) as his selected charity during his tenure as mayor.
“We have a very mixed community in our borough,” Pietragnoli told The Times of Israel, “and we all need to live in peace. People may think this is a posh event for middle class people who are already involved. It’s not.
“I want people here today to feel a little bit uncomfortable about how they have dealt with other faiths – and to try to improve on that,” said Pietragnoli.
As the walkers crowded into the Central Synagogue – bombed during the Second World War and rebuilt immediately after – Marcus said he hoped a seed had been planted.
“I want this event to stretch out a hand in an effort to make our society a better one,” Marcus said.
Mavis Hyman, whose daughter Miriam was killed by al-Qaeda extremists in the London bombings of July 2005, spoke of the foundation set up in her memory. Money from the Miriam Hyman Foundation enables operations in India to help blind children to see. Hyman also hoped that education, and the spirit of the marchers, could change “the metaphorically blind.”
Violence between faiths, she concluded, was not inevitable.