Worshipping outside the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland
by Julia PAUL
19 November 2021
For many in Northern Ireland, their identity is tied up in their faith. As soon as you read that sentence you can’t help but think about Catholicism and Protestantism. But there are ‘other’ Christians and non-Christians living here — and their numbers are increasing.
This year is Northern Ireland’s centenary. It’s proving hard to agree how to mark that milestone — not surprising for a place that has been arguing over its identity for 100 years. But perhaps one way of doing that would be to examine society in Northern Ireland without the sectarian filter. Some of the community — people who’ve moved here, or who were born here — find the labels of British or Irish, Protestant or Catholic, meaningless — and yet they’re still successfully bringing up their families, working, paying taxes, contributing to society.
I worked here as a reporter for the BBC, mainly covering news and politics, for nearly 15 years. I interviewed hundreds of people, including the politician Anna Lo. But when I think back, I don’t remember speaking to another member of the Chinese community. Chinese migrants started arriving in Northern Ireland in the 1960s. Like many of us, I enjoyed the food their restaurant trade provided, and often shopped in the Asian supermarket in Belfast. But in terms of seeing and hearing from members of the Chinese community as business people, or educators or spokespeople, that just didn’t seem to happen. Depressingly, of course I probably interviewed someone who’d been the subject of a racist attack, but we now know that only hearing from women or people of colour when they’re victims does not equal diversity in the media.
Now I live in England, and some of the work I do is for the BBC World Service documentary strand, Heart and Soul. This 26-minute programme explores personal stories of faith. Looking at Northern Ireland from the perspective of a world audience is an interesting thing to do. In some ways the experiences of living with conflict and division are universal. But examine an individual conflict in the context of the rest of the world and it often brings a broader perspective. For my latest programme, broadcast on Friday, 19th November, I’ve come back to Belfast to correct that inequality in my interviewing. In The Hidden Faiths of Northern Ireland, I’m speaking to three people who live outside the sectarian divide.
Dr Satyavir Singhal is a consultant at the Royal Hospital in Belfast and a Hindu. He moved to Northern Ireland from India with his family in 2000. He says that due to changes in India his generation lost out on the teaching of Hinduism, so although he has practised since he was a child, he knew less about the history and context of his religion. The more people in Northern Ireland asked him about his religion and his country of birth, the more he studied it, and the more he was drawn closer to his personal faith. He’s currently the chairman of the Indian Community Centre in Belfast, which is home to the only Hindu temple in Northern Ireland, and has developed a presentation about the building, Indian migration, and Hinduism. Now he teaches Northern Ireland society about Hinduism. There are only a few thousand Hindus in Northern Ireland, but in the last 20 years their number has nearly trebled, while the number of Muslims has nearly doubled.
Esther Chong was born in Malaysia to Chinese parents who moved there for a better life. Now she and her husband Frank, who’s also Chinese Malay, are bringing up their two children here. They came on a two-year visa to work and visit Esther’s sister. But the day after she arrived Esther attended a service at the Chinese Christian Church in Belfast, and she says God began to show her her path forward in Northern Ireland. Both her children are autistic, and she now runs supports groups at her church for other Chinese families, especially those who struggle with the language barrier.
Both Satyavir and Esther are relatively recent immigrants, but Joseph Nawaz has a different story to tell. He was born here. His father was a Muslim from Pakistan, his mother a white Catholic from Belfast. His parents were married in the 1970s, at a time when most Northern Ireland churches wouldn’t even marry a Catholic and Protestant. Joseph is now a dad himself and has had a long and difficult journey to embrace his mixed heritage and come to terms with the two very different religions in his childhood. That journey was made even harder by the loss of his father 15 years ago, when he murdered in Pakistan. Joseph has dramatized some of his childhood in the stage show Fake ID, and he’s in the process of creating a new show about the loss of his father called Five Days.
All three of these people spoke with me about how they have worked out how they fit into society in Northern Ireland — something I remember experiencing myself when I first moved to Belfast in 2000. They also talk openly about their experiences of racism. But it’s a circular problem. The less we see and hear from people of colour, the easier it is to demonise them.
You can hear the Hidden Faiths of Northern Ireland at https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w3ct2z3c