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When unity is the focus, faith-based differences fade

A London photography project brings together students of five religions in an effort to boost community relations.

January 12, 2007|Eleanor Wason | Reuters

LONDON — Tahiya, a student at an Islamic school converted from a Victorian grammar school, is discussing a photograph she took of a friend with her head covered by a hijab and a scarf pulled up to her eyes.

"I didn't really think of a meaning behind it, although when I look at it now it looks like there are several," she told Reuters, giggling.

"My photo makes me think 'terrorist' because of all the influences of the outside world, but that wasn't my intention. My friend wrapped the scarf around her face because she was cold."

Tahiya is one of a group of London teenagers from five religions taking part in a government-funded photography workshop aimed at improving community links in one of the world's most multicultural cities.

The scheme encourages teenagers to use photography to explore perceptions of religion. It comes at a time when Britain's traditional government support for religion-based schools is coming under fire.

Critics say faith schools fuel segregation and intolerance. The London bombings by British-bred Muslim extremists in 2005 sparked concern that a policy of encouraging communities to conserve their traditions rather than assume a common British identity had deepened dangerous cultural divides.

There are about 7,000 state-supported faith schools in Britain, mostly affiliated with major Christian denominations, but also Jewish, Muslim and Sikh schools.

They are popular with parents who often associate them with high academic achievement, and the government says they can help community cohesion by developing partnerships with schools of other faiths and nonfaith schools.

In the project's weekly sessions, students study famous photographers and learn to document their own lives through photos. They aim to produce a joint exhibition of their pictures at the end of the school year.

Once a term, they meet at one of the schools to work in mixed-faith groups.

Despite initial reservations, the 14-to-16-year-old students from Islamia Girls School, Mount Carmel Roman Catholic Technology College, King Solomon High, Guru Nanak Sikh School and Swaminarayan Hindu School were pleasantly surprised by one another.

"You think people from other religions are going to be very different," 14-year-old Islamia student Sarah said.

"But they're just like you, they have the same ideas as you, the same heroes. Religion is something we base our lives on, but it didn't matter when we talked together."

Student discussions of how a simple image can hold different interpretations according to the viewers' background help probe wider issues of identity -- personal, religious and national.

Many said they had never met people from certain religions before, but their nerves soon gave way to inquisitiveness. "I heard a Catholic girl ask a Muslim girl if she liked to wear a head scarf," organizer Gabrielle Lobb said.

Muslim women's dress has become a hot topic in many countries after senior politicians, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair, said full veils hindered community relations.

Britain has traditionally taken a more tolerant approach to Islamic dress than other European countries such as France, where the head scarf is banned in state schools.

Many of the non-Muslim girls attending the workshop were clearly unused to keeping their hair covered as required by Islamia, one of several Islamic schools founded by Yusuf Islam, the singer-songwriter formerly known as Cat Stevens.

The government last year tried but failed to enforce a scheme obliging religious schools to offer a quarter of their places to children of different faiths. Instead, leaders of the major faiths pledged to commit their schools to teach students about other religions and promote community cohesion.

Spencer Lewis, deputy head of Jewish King Solomon High, opposed the quota idea but welcomed inter-faith dialogue.

"This photo project was a tremendous opportunity to get students to learn about each other's faiths," he said.

"This is what schools need to be doing. Children need to see how other people live -- that is how you break down stereotypes."

Mount Carmel art teacher Cathy Lee said a visit to the opulent white marble temple next door to the Hindu school participating in the project had reduced her girls to uncharacteristic silence and left some of them almost moved to tears.

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