OPINION: Tolerance is now charitable

LISA HARKER, deputy director of the Institute for Public Policy Research

Perhaps one of the biggest lessons to have come out of the terrorist attacks on America a year ago has been that military information and security are not in themselves sufficient to prevent terrorism. An understanding of how others in the world perceive us may be just as crucial. Few doubt that more could be done to bridge the gulf in understanding between nations, societies, races and religions.

How apt, then, that the Charity Commission has announced that the promotion of religious harmony is to be considered a charitable purpose for the first time. You might be forgiven for assuming that it already was. After all, for what reason other than to benefit the public would you seek to raise awareness and understanding between religious groups? And since the advancement of one religion is already a satisfactory condition for charitable status, why not the promotion of tolerance between religions?

But until The Friends of the Three Faiths Forum - established by leading members of the Christian, Islamic and Jewish faiths - requested and received charitable status in June this year, the promotion of religious harmony was not considered to be a charitable aim.

This is one of the ways in which charity law has failed to keep up with changing circumstances, a frustration that has prompted many reports and inquiries, including the current review being undertaken by the Government's Strategy Unit, as the PIU is now called. The Commission is right to have taken proactive steps to update charitable status, as it has done in a wide range of activities such as the relief of unemployment, promotion of human rights and regeneration.

But the recognition of the charitable aim of promoting religious harmony may also increase awareness of the contribution that many charities already make in promoting tolerance. We used to look to the church for neutral diplomacy. But with growing awareness of the dangers of religious intolerance, perhaps the charity sector's role in helping to overcome conflict will become increasingly important.

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