RELIGIOUS LEADERS throughout Britain are telling their congregations not to be taken in by the "utterly commercial" hype of the Millennium Dome's much-debated Faith Zone.
From mainstream Anglicans to Orthodox Ethiopian Rastafarians, the general consensus is that the zone is cheap, gimmicky and, above all, irrelevant.
It was introduced partly to appeal to the three most influential faith groups after the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster and even the Chief Rabbi complained that plans for the Dome were ignoring the religious significance of the year 2000.
The New Millennium Experience Company (NMEC), running the Dome, then hailed the zone as a place for Britons of all faiths - or indeed of no faith - to explore their spiritual relationships in a way that would be "engaging and involving".
But the founder of Britain's fastest- growing church begs to differ. "The Millennium is a celebration of the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ, it is not about celebration of human achievement," said Pastor Matthew Ashimolowo, the evangelical minister of the Kingsway International Christian Centre (KICC) in Hackney, east London.
"Sadly, the government has concentrated most of the effort for this unique celebration on a Dome which portrays a confused image suggesting that man no longer understands his own identity. It is tragic that our national leaders have failed to grasp the significance of this occasion."
The Faith Zone, which incorporates a designated prayer room as well as an intricately lit "contemplation" room, was recently renamed just "Faith Zone", amid fears that the "The" in the original title might offend non- Christian worshippers by implying that Christianity was more important than other faiths.
Yet despite NMEC's undoubted attempts to embrace Britain's multi-faith population, the new Faith Zone has failed to attract much respect from the country's religious leaders.
"It is of no interest to us whatsoever," said Jah Blue of the UK Orthodox Ethiopian Rastafarian temple in south London. "It is a celebration of Christ as he is depicted by our Western oppressors. Of what relevance is that to us? We will never go there. We'll just ignore it."
In constructing its pounds 7m Faith Zone, NMEC sought the services of the Lambeth Consultative Group, a committee of multi-faith leaders incorporating Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Judaism and Buddhism, in the hope of avoiding alienating any creed. It decided, for example, not to have the Christian symbol of the cross in the Zone.
Far from serving to embrace Britain's less mainstream denominations, such measures have sparked little more than indifference from such groups, while inflaming Christian organisations.
"There is a very real danger of a `virtual fear' or squeamishness about religious faith," said Joel Edwards, the director-general of the Evangelical Alliance. "I see it as an anti-faith paranoia. Changing the name of the zone from The Faith Zone to Faith Zone is a reflection of a lack of clarity about spirituality and faith.
"The Dome is an expression of our combined humanity, and faith should be an integral part of that. The millennium is obviously about the birth of Christ yet I fear that spiritual values will be lost within the razzmatazz of the celebrations."
While NMEC aims to please all of Britain's creeds, from Zen Buddhists to agnostics, its efforts are being written off as confused and entirely missing the spiritual point by both Christian and non-Christian groups.
"We pray 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year - this Faith Zone has no particular meaning to us," said a spokesperson for the Muslim Council. "We are flattered that NMEC has taken on board our view but it is after all a Christian celebration and Faith Zone should reflect that."
There may be no crucifix, but there is a giant sculpture of a slot machine, entitled: "It pays to pray", helping fuel the criticism. In the form of a chocolate dispenser, the sculpture will randomly select and display a prayer in return for 20p.
"As well as being utterly commercial and missing the point religiously, the Faith Zone has also been constructed a year too early," said Stephen Parkinson of the Anglican umbrella organisation Forward In Faith. "Opinions vary, but most Christians agree that the new millennium starts in 2001. There was never a year zero. The year 2000 is simply numerically arresting - it has no Christian element."
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