The Priest and the Imam: "Our friendship shows what the community can be like"
Sat after a long day in a busy Leeds Station waiting room earlier this month, Mark Umpleby and Irfan Soni were interrupted in their weary chatter by a woman in her 60s.
Dressed in religious regalia - Mark is a priest, Irfan an imam - in these splintered times, you may have forgiven them for feeling a little nervous to hear what she had to say.
“I think it’s wonderful that the two of you are friends,” she smiled, “there should be so much more of this.”
It’s an anecdote the two men recall fondly as the perfect example of what their friendship can achieve when placed in the public eye. And on that day of all days - on their way home to Batley from a London conference set up to discuss the cohesion of Muslim and Christian communities - it felt a worthwhile justification of what they are trying to achieve.
Mark said: “So many of the problems we have in our community come from a misinformation and a misuse of the media, and certainly social media.
“You see snapshots on social media that encourages us to believe that people of different faiths and backgrounds can’t live together. There is such an emphasis on difference, rather than what we have in common.
“There’s a lot of fear and a lack of trust, sometimes. And that’s sometimes difficult to overcome. But we have to.”
They first met when Mark arrived in Batley a little over four years ago, but their friendship began to blossom in the wake of the region’s darkest hour - the death of Jo Cox in 2016.
Irfan said: “It was a huge tragedy and it had a huge effect on the people of our town. It still does.
“I met Mark and we’d done a few projects on different things together, but it was after the tragedy of Jo’s death that time together increased. We went from seeing one another once or twice every couple of months to seeing one another two or three times a week.
“Our religions might be different but we both share the same goal - to spread love and peace anywhere we can, regardless of faith, colour or culture.”
Their recent trip to London was the latest in a number of projects they have worked together on, all with the aim of bringing the North Kirklees community closer together.
Together they helped to organise the Batley Iftar events in 2017 and 2018, and are a driving force behind the ‘More in Common’ project set up to continue Jo Cox’s legacy in Batley and Spen.
“We’ve done all sorts,” Mark said, “some of the things I’m most proud of is the work we’ve done going into schools and speaking at assemblies.
“We had one questions asking ‘how can we be such good friends when one of us is Christian and the other is Muslim?’
“That’s exactly the sort of thing we need to help people to understand.”