On Tuesday 8 August 2023, Essex Police gathered together people and communities across the county for an event held at Southend and District Reform Synagogue to explore the issues of faith-based discrimination and hate crime.
As Lead Chaplain for Essex Police, I want to ensure that the force understands faith communities and issues through dialogue and meetings, and to empower individuals to be open about their faith. It is my experience that people are much more open now about ethnicity, sexuality, disability, etc, which is wonderful, but people hardly ever talk about faith – it almost feels taboo!
However, a person’s faith is integral to their identity and informs all that they do, so I find it really sad that people feel they have to hide/play down that element of their life.
Our main objectives for the evening were:
- Essex Police and religious communities to be informed and empowered to support each other in the best and most effective ways.
- Essex Police and religious communities to form a closer partnership.
- To celebrate the common goals and values of religions and learn from our differences.
To achieve these objectives, it was imperative to learn what discrimination actually looks like for individuals of faith.
After an initial welcome from Essex Police’s ACO Leicester, the Hate Crime Team put the situation into context with various stats while encouraging faith groups to report.
We then heard from representatives from Sikhism, Judaism, Heathenry (Pagan), Islam and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (colloquially known as Mormons). The individual speakers gave a short overview of their religions and then spoke about examples of discrimination and hate crime, including slurs, verbal abuse, physical abuse, defacing + damage of buildings, violent attacks, terrorist threats and acts – both historical and in the present day. They also each gave accounts of their own experiences of discrimination and hate directed at them personally, just for being a religious person.
It was fantastic that we had a mixture of the better-known religions as well as those less known about. All religions face the issue of misconceptions, but it was great to give a voice to those who have had less opportunity in the spotlight. Our Pagan speaker (specifically Heathen) dispelled a number of myths, misconceptions and outright falsehoods about Paganism. He highlighted that people often think Pagans are Satanists, Devil worshippers and sexual deviants – this is completely false. This is due partly to a misunderstanding of witchcraft and magic as part of some Pagan rites – but this is not the kind of witchcraft we see in stories like Harry Potter, Buffy, etc. In Paganism, magic is about using the earth and the elements as remedies (potions) for ailments or as supplements and there is a belief in the power of the universe and connection of people to create positive change. It is a beautiful faith with a real respect for nature and the inclusivity of all. The speaker also highlighted that, because of their beliefs on equality, they face discrimination and threats from Neo-Nazis and other far-right extremist groups – an interesting parallel with many religions.
The Latter-Day Saints rep challenged us to bring to mind what we thought about her Church and pre-empted answers such as polygamy, being a sect (due to secrecy), pushing faith on others. Her response was to clarify that the Church no longer practices polygamy and that they can’t possibly be a sect because their main role as followers is to talk about their religion. Additionally, followers should not be pushing faith on people, but do have a religious duty to share their faith, as many religions do. They just want to talk about it. The speaker was really honest about her own history of actually being a persecutor of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, believing the misconceptions brought about by history and negative media portrayals, before she then converted herself.
Sadly, much of the discrimination experienced is from other Christian groups. Although the Church identifies as Christian, following the teachings of Jesus, they also don’t share some more traditional Christian doctrines such as belief in the Holy Trinity (God as three parts – Father, Son and Holy Spirit). The other main difference is that the Church is called Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints because they believe that there were further prophets and continued revelations, so have extra holy books.
Both the Pagan and Latter-Day Saints speakers said that they had never been to an event like this and never get invited to multi-faith gatherings. The Latter-Day Saints speaker said they’ve even asked to be part of ecumenical/joint church events and have been told they are not welcome.
It was so impactful, therefore, for those in the room of all faiths and none, to learn more and dispel some of the misconceptions that we each were carrying and realise that, actually, we are all facing similar forms of discrimination and hate. And both speakers were so happy to be so welcomed by those gathered and to give a true voice to their faiths.
The phrase “Islamic Terrorism” was debunked as completely oxymoronic as one cannot be truly Muslim and yet be a terrorist as that is incompatible with the teachings of Prophet Muhammad. As in many religions, extremists have used religion as a platform for terrorism, but due largely to the 9/11 attacks and the 7/7 bombings, Muslims have unfairly been stigmatised by this label.
Similarly, we heard that Sikhs have also faced a massive increase in hate since 9/11 due to being mistaken for Muslims. As well as this, due to certain cultural practices, such as wearing a turban, not cutting hair and other dress differences, it is immediately apparent that they are Sikh and so this makes them a target for anyone looking to discriminate. This is similar for Muslims, Orthodox Jews, Priests and Nuns, etc.
A talk from the Jewish Community Security Trust was also well received. A charity, the Trust provides high security measures for Jewish people and buildings and offers training to other groups who need to bring their own security to a higher standard. Anti-Semitism has been massive throughout history and sadly is still experienced by Jewish people.
It was a truly valuable evening: sharing a meal, discussion, the opportunity for questions and some closing remarks from His Majesty’s Lord Lieutenant for Essex. Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, paving the way for future police and faith events.
Hannah Kelly, Lead Chaplain