Forum’s work in promoting interfaith understanding

Tim Miller
Tim Miller

This week reporter Richard Gladstone shines a light on the unifying work of the Hastings and District Interfaith Forum which brings together people from a wide cross-section of religious backgrounds.

AT times Hastings has come under the spotlight for the wrong reasons.

Indian dancers at Hastings Got Culture

Indian dancers at Hastings Got Culture

After Qatari student Mohammed al-Majed was attacked and killed outside a kebab shop by thugs in August 2008, the town was unfairly pilloried by the national media for being racist.

But there is plenty of evidence across the town to show that this label is a million miles away from reality.

Hastings and St Leonards is host to many nationalities and religious faiths, with more than 100 foreign languages spoken here, and with around 11 per cent of the town’s 85,000-plus population hailing from ethnic minority groups, according to 2009 statistics, the town continues to become more ethnically diverse.

Only a year earlier the figure was just over six per cent.

The town is also home to at least a dozen language schools, which welcome students from across the world.

And the work of one organisation, Hastings and District Interfaith Forum, works tirelessly throughout the year to stengthen already strong ties between the diverse groups.

The forum, currently chaired by Tim Miller, was set up four years ago by Habibah Anwar Bhatti.

Made up of six officers and 10 committee members, it acts as a voice for a multitude of faiths, ranging from the Christian denominations, to Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish and Baha’i religions.

The town has long been a home to many ethnic and religious groups and according to 2001 census figures there were nearly 300 Buddhists in Hastings and St Leonards, more than 200 Hindus, and more than 600 practising Muslims.

With such a wide range of faiths represented, Hastings and District Interfaith Forum has its work cut out, running numerous events throughout the year to cater for all tastes - all with the central aim of promoting greater understanding between the different groups in town.

Last August, for example, St Leonards Gardens was turned into a ‘Garden of Asian Delights’ as more than 350 visitors and residents sampled Chinese, Bengali and Middle Eastern food, took part in games and entered a talent contest.

And in October the group hosted Hastings Got Culture, a multi-cultural talent show at St Mary-in-the-Castle.

The venue became alive to the rhythmic sound of African drumming, Indian dancing and a variety of different acts.

Last month visitors were further treated to the exotic taste of Africa as Concordia Hall ushered in an African New Year celebration.

The forum also works closely with Hastings Intercultural Organisation and even runs a group for children and teenagers called BELIEVE, promoting its all-important message of tolerance and understanding to young people from different backgrounds.

This group showed off its artistic talent at the Hastings Got Culture event, doing lively performances, which wowed audiences.

An upbeat Mr Miller firmly believes his organisation is going from ‘strength to strength’ and is now hoping to cement ties with the Sikh and Hindu communities.

He said: “It has been a success without question and on many occasions we have run more than two events in a month. For an entirely volunteer-led body it is pretty good going. Our work has made Hastings more tolerant as a town and most people involved in the group are in an active role in the community.

“The trend is for this country to have greater diversity. Particularly at a time when there is a lot of media attention about religious minorities it is important to foster good relationships and mutual understanding on both sides so we all realiose we are human beings and, for the most part a very well-behaved society.”