Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders have warned the BBC that they are at risk of turning its back on efforts to “tackle extremism and intolerance” in Britain simply to cut costs.
In a letter to The Telegraph they urged the corporation to reverse plans to axe its high-profile post of head of religion, currently held by Aaqil Ahmed, the first Muslim in the job, as part of an overhaul of its programme commissioning operations.
Religion is to be merged with science, history and business issues under a new head of “factual” programming in a move the BBC claims will provide an “increased focus on leadership and creativity”.
But the faith leaders said it “could not have come at a worse time” amid tensions relating to religion brutally demonstrated by the terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo magazine and a kosher supermarket in Paris.
The letter is jointly signed by Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, leader of Reform Judaism in the UK, the Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain, Dr Shuja Shafi, and the Bishop of Manchester Right Reverend David Walker together with Prof Linda Woodhead, of Lancaster University, one of the country’s leading authorities on faith in public life.
“Religion is not history,” they insist, going on to voice alarm at the timing.
“From religious efforts at tackling Ebola in West Africa, to the interfaith solidarity that has so far helped prevent the horrors of France being imported to these shores, religion remains a force for change at home and abroad.
“Religious literacy is essential to the diversity we treasure in Britain – and a tonic to the extremism and intolerance that threaten it.
“The BBC plays a key role here, providing robust and rich coverage of religious life to the British public.”
The BBC said in a statement last week that its commitment to religion and ethics output remains “unequivocal”.
Mr Ahmed has been told he can apply for the new role and will continue to oversee in-house production of religious programmes.