The importance of those within a particular faith discussing their differences as well as of dialogue between adherents of different traditions was highlighted at the fifth Aotearoa New Zealand National Interfaith Forum at Parliament last month.
The forum was organised by the Wellington Interfaith Council. The plenary forum was preceded by the first ever national youth interfaith forum on Saturday and the third national women’s interfaith forum on Sunday. This year’s theme was ‘Beyond Tolerance: Towards Understanding and Respect’.
The youth forum focused on ‘creative encounters generating change’. Delegates endorsed the Statement on Religious Diversity, and supported activities marking the forthcoming 60th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the development of a national youth interfaith network, and regional youth interfaith councils. They noted the importance of developing educational resources on religious diversity and sought youth input into policy and legislative changes.
The women’s forum included a number of presentations and workshops, and shared stories. Participants looked at both personal and strategic ways of supporting interfaith understanding. They supported more social interaction and planned activities between the annual forums, better use of existing interfaith directories, a more strategic approach to public relations, more information sharing and an expanded interfaith website.
The Forum also included a public address on the Sunday evening by New Zealand born Rabbi David Rose, who is the Hebrew Congregation Rabbi for East Scotland, Executive Member of the Edinburgh Inter-Faith Association and Executive Member of the Conference of Scotland’s Religious Leaders. Rabbi Rose spoke of his experience of interfaith activity in Edinburgh, the importance of effective relationships between faith communities and government, and four principles—integrity, openness, inclusion and honesty—that should underpin interfaith dialogue.
The Governor-General, Hon Anand Satyanand, opened the plenary forum. He spoke of New Zealand’s increased religious diversity, and the fact that public reaction to some incidents in recent years revealed a continuing lack of understanding of different religions. He referred to the preamble of the Statement on Religious Diversity, and its account of the guarantee of religious diversity at the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. He emphasised the importance of intra-faith as well as interfaith dialogue.
The forum included reports of activities from regional interfaith councils in Auckland, Waikato, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. A further session covered government agencies’ role in promoting interfaith dialogue, including contributions from Rohan Jaduram of the Human Rights Commission and Sergeant Rakesh Naidoo from the New Zealand Police.
There were workshops on ‘Bridging the gap, strengthening local communities’, ‘Using education as a tool to bridge the gap’, and ‘Intra-faith and interfaith, forging relationships’. Key points arising out of the workshops included:
There is a need to dedicate some time and energy to consider ways of taking interfaith initiatives forward, including strengthening interfaith structures, connecting interfaith structures with faith communities, and connecting these with government and non-government agencies.
The introduction of the new curriculum, with its emphasis on cultural diversity and inclusion, provides great opportunities to educate young people on faiths and values. There will be a need for new educational resources, and it will be important for education about religions to be conducted in a safe environment and with professional teachers. The development of NCEA achievement standards for religious studies is welcome. Faith communities can offer to be resource people and to be hosts in their places of worship. The television series ‘My God’ will be a good resource and is hopefully going to be available on DVD.
Interfaith dialogue needs to be characterised by respectful dialogue and reflective listening. The same needs to apply to intra-faith dialogue to bridge the gap between liberals and conservatives. There have been recent examples of concrete actions by interfaith councils to support religious diversity in their communities (providing space for an additional faith community in a cemetery, ensuring that hospital chaplains are available to all, providing a book of universal prayers from different traditions for public use).
The forum applauded Police sponsorship of the annual secondary schools Race Unity Speech competition, which has been organised since 1999 by the Baha’i community in association with the Human Rights Commission. It is held as part of Race Relations Day activities in March, and the topic is the Race Relations Day theme of ‘finding common ground’. The Police announced at the forum that they will be providing sponsorship for the competition for the next five years.
Forum Chairperson Dr Pushpa Wood said that members of all faiths represented at the forum welcomed the partnership and other initiatives by the Police to enhance intercultural and interfaith understanding, including the Police ethnic responsiveness strategy, the Police handbook on religious diversity, and recruitment of staff of different faiths and ethnicities.
Next year’s forum will be held in Auckland, organised by the Auckland Interfaith Council.
Joris de Bres is Race Relations Commissioner.
Picture shows leaders of different faiths, youth, women and Police at the National Interfaith Forum in March.