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World Interfaith Harmony Week Observed at a Forum in the UK

London, UK - “Interreligious Harmony and Free Speech” was the subject of a forum held in a committee room of the House of Lords on Feb. 4.

Representatives from various backgrounds and religions expressed their opinions at the forum, which was organized by UPF-UK to commemorate the United Nations’ World Interfaith Harmony Week.

In her welcoming remarks, the Rt. Hon. Sandip Verma, Baroness Verma, British undersecretary of state for energy and climate, and the host of the forum, said, “Communities can come together to be candid and have an honest conversation.”

“There is always a consequence to the words we use,” said Nicola Bailey, the assistant principal at the Archbishop Lanfranc Academy, as she urged that parents practice self-censorship when practicing the human right of free speech. “Adults shape and teach children. How often do we check our responsibility?” asked Ms. Bailey, who is also the director of SPICE, a charity based in the town of Croydon that helps families in crisis.

Humphrey Hawksley, a world affairs correspondent for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), emphasized how important it is, before expressing a point or an opinion, to consider the possible effect of that comment on the listener. Different opinions can lead to negative consequences or even to acts of violence, Mr. Hawksley said.

“Each society should have clarity for what one can or cannot do or say,” said Keith Best, a notable barrister. “We as a society must recognize the sensitivity of others when using freedom of speech. Pope Francis recently remarked that freedom of speech should not be used to cause offense,” said Mr. Best, a former officer with the UK-registered charities Prisoners Abroad and Freedom from Torture.

Sheikh Dr. Hojjat Ramzy, the director of the Iqra Islamic Institute and the current chair of the Education Committee of the Muslim Council of Britain, said that if all people could agree on the principle of love, they would have the ability to understand the traditions and beliefs of others.

Islam allows freedom of speech, but there is “a limitation when it comes to harm,” said Sheikh Ramzy. “Freedom should not cause damage or harm to others,” said the sheikh.

The Rev. Dr. Marcus Braybrooke, president of the World Congress of Faiths and co-founder of the Three Faiths Forum, recalled his 20 years of living in India. Working in a leprosy clinic there, he observed that people of different religions came together to help the sick, and instead of seeing each other for their beliefs, they got to know each other as people.

There must “be a challenge [to the] exclusiveness that is characteristic of some religions,” Reverend Braybrooke said.

Baroness Verma said that Western countries must accept the failure of spreading freedom of speech. We need to encourage interreligious harmony, but instead we have been blinded by our own political agendas, she said. This is why we came together to have a discussion, as debates are about raising opinions. “We must share the willingness to accept other people and that they may have different thoughts,” said Baroness Verma.

During the question and answer session, there was a lot of heat as well as insightful opinions from a great variety of attendees. Muslims, Hindus, and Christians all had much to say. Opinions were strong and challenging. This was a chance to observe and absorb the knowledge shared by others. Achieving peace, conflict resolution, recognizing sensitivity, and the need for education were the subjects discussed repeatedly.

For a detailed report, click here.

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