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Dharmic Religion Finally Finding a Place in European Interfaith

Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs Coming to the Table

More than two million Hindus are scattered across Europe. Almost a third live in Britain, and a sixth live in the Netherlands. Apart from that you can find smaller communities in every country of Europe.

A Hindu Ganesh festival sponsored by the Sri Lankan Tamil community in Paris. – Photo: WikipediaMany countries in continental Europe have interfaith groups, often known as interreligious organisations. However they mostly reflect the three Abrahamic traditions. The Dharmic faiths, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, are not always represented. Sometimes there is a lack of suitable candidates. Finding Hindus who are willing to take seats on such committees can be a very difficult task; but often their absence is because they are excluded.

Hindus of Asian origin are fairly new migrants to Europe, and therefore they are still focused on securing food, shelter, and other economic and safety needs, and not necessarily on spiritual engagement in interfaith circles. Adding to their difficulties is the lack of versatility in European languages. Sometimes we are referred to as groups with ‘less history’ or ‘shorter histories’ than Europe’s. In short, Europe is still getting used to people of Vedic traditions.

There are Hindus of European origin who could take part in such interreligious dialogue, but people of the Abrahamic traditions find it difficult to take these ‘converts’ on board. Indeed at a recent meeting of a group where a white Hindu was nominated for a seat, an orthodox representative objected on the grounds that these people convert their neighbours and break up families! Interesting, considering that some of these orthodox traditions spend enormous resources converting people in India to Christianity! I wish I had remembered to quote from the Christian scriptures to this person – “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.”

Recruiting Interfaith Activists

The larger, more pertinent issue is finding Hindus with the right skills to take their seats in interreligious groups and organisations that are open and accepting. It can take years to find people. This is the biggest complaint I hear – that groups cannot find a Hindu to be part of interfaith. Indeed, active Dharmic organisations and individuals get swamped with requests. They are few and the demand is great.

Many European groups work on interfaith. Religions for Peace (RFP) is a large family of organizations working on these issues. There are councils of religious leaders such as the European Council of Religious Leaders (ECRL). Many individual countries, Belgium for example, now have their own councils. Though the Belgium state itself is not inclusive and does not recognise Hinduism as an official religion, the Belgian Council of Religious Leaders includes Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, and Sikh leaders. The RFP family also includes RFP Europe, European Women of Faith Network (EWFN), and the European Youth Network (EYN).

Many good people in these organizations push their boundaries in order to include faiths other than the traditional three Abrahamic traditions. However, it is more difficult with conservatives who want to stick to what they have always known. I think fear of having to cut the pie of finance and privilege into smaller pieces also lies at the heart of resistance.

The European Network for Religion and Belief (ENORB), has been a shock to the system of the rather conservative interfaith dialogue in Europe. Set up just two years ago, this organisation (profiled in this issue) is open to all faiths and beliefs, including Humanists and non-Abrahamic traditions. It has prompted more conservative interfaith groups to take another look at inclusivity because they now have competition.

The Shree Sanatan Hindu Mandir, a Hindu temple in Wembley, England.Britain, operating very differently than continental Europe for years, now features interfaith dialogue including nine, not three, faith traditions, which works very well. These nine are Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, and the Quakers.

However, there has been resistance to including Pagans until quite recently. Mainland Europe is miles behind in this arena – Pagans are never even mentioned. It has always surprised me how Europe can develop in interfaith if the indigenous and oldest religions on the continent are not included. However, diversity is growing all the time, and we are moving slowly towards greater openness and inclusivity.

The European Commission has a commitment to include faiths in dialogue and consultation. June saw their tenth annual event for high level religious leaders in dialogue, hosted by the president of the Commission, with the president of the Parliament and the Union and some 20 leaders attending. A joint statement from the politicians and the religious leaders was issued on the situation of Meriam Ibrahim, who has been sentenced to death in the Sudan for her faith.

Similarly the ECRL, at its annual meeting in May, issued a statement opposing the abduction of girls. For religious leaders to be seen together in a European context, making statements together, is dynamic and empowering. It of course leads to cooperation on other issues too. For example, the situation in Bosnia was improved greatly by the fact the former Mufti Mustafa Ceric was a man with a vision and experience of interfaith dialogue and an active member of the ECRL. EWFN launched the Restoring Dignity to Women project in Sarajevo in 2012 to highlight the issue of rape and violence, made possible by the good dialogue already taking place.

Currently the situation in Europe is moving towards inclusivity, and we are determined that the Dharmic traditions will be a part of this movement. It means we have to work hard to raise our profile, find the right calibre of people to fill the gaps, and dedicate the time and effort needed to make it all work.