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Eric Pickles MP: Why this Government wants faith groups to play a leading part in the Big Society

Eric Pickles cheerful By Communities and Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles

As we approach December, many of us feel inspired to give something back. You don’t need to a regular churchgoer to embrace that Christian value by wrapping presents for disadvantaged kids, put on a panto at the local theatre or sing carols at an old folks' home. That's why few things exasperate me more than when I read of councils letting Christmas be hijacked and renaming it ‘Winterval’ or ‘Luminous’. It's part of an aggressive school of secularism that has marginalised faith groups in this country.

Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu or Sikh are united in their desire to make things better in their communities. That’s why this Government wants religion to play a leading part in the Big Society. This week I was glad to recognise the contribution of faith groups to our society with ‘inter-faith week’. You won’t find too many churches, temples, mosques or synagogues in this country only interested in what goes on in their own walls. Today and every day, without thanks or applause, you’ll get volunteers from every faith group serving their community in every conceivable way: running youth clubs; offering help to the homeless; providing meals to the vulnerable – or simply listening to the lonely. In many ways these communities exemplify the Big Society principles of collective responsibility, neighbourliness and practical skills to get things done.

The experience that faith groups have, the reach into communities that public services may struggle to get to, is invaluable. Religious festivals from Eid to Christmas to Hannukah inspire believers to give to others and think about the less fortunate. Our message in inter-faith week was that if faith groups do a tremendous amount individually; collectively they can do even more.  There’s a brilliant example in Bedford, the ‘Faith in Queen’s Park’ project brings together Sikhs, Christians and Muslims to run sports and activities for around 250 young people and disadvantaged adults every week.

Faith groups work tirelessly for charities and dedicate millions of hours to the voluntary sector every year. Yet for too long faith groups were held at arms length, undervalued and even viewed with suspicion. Labour tried to force Britons to turn their back on faith and heritage in the name of political correctness, and allowed so-called equality laws to undermine the fundamental right of freedom of religion.

Last year, the Archbishop of York warned of an "intolerance towards Christians in the public sector" and that "'equality' seemingly excludes anyone, black or white, with a Christian belief in God". PC police have even tried to ban prayers before council meetings and rebrand Christmas for fear of upsetting other religions. It was an insult to our faith groups and an insult to the country, suggesting we’d all prefer bland conformity to rich diversity.

Modern Britain has room to celebrate many cultures and beliefs. For example, on Sunday I had a great time at the 2010 British Curry Awards – a perfect example of how our culture is always expanding and evolving. Over the last century the British tikka masala has become as synonymous as fish and chips. There are now 12,000 Indian restaurants all over the British Isles directly employing around 100,000 people and generating £4 billion a year for the British economy.

We can and do embrace new cultures without abandoning our historic heritage. No need for anxious politicians to lecture us on diversity one moment and try to protect us from experiencing other people’s beliefs the next. So I see no need to feel pressured into re-branding Christmas into a faceless winter holiday this year. Let’s stop seeing religion as a problem that needs to be hidden away for fear of offending. Faith in Christ just like true faith in other religions, inspires people to look outwards and try to make things better.

That’s why the new Government sees our religion as part of the solution, not a problem. At Christmas and all the year round we will always have an open door to faith groups who want to put their values into practice.

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