Such race-based incidents as the recent desecration of Jewish graves in Wellington has led to the establishment of an electronic network of supporters of dialogue between people of different faiths.
Graves in two Jewish cemeteries in Wellington were attacked last July and August eliciting a New Zealand parliamentary statement expressing unequivocal condemnation of anti-Semitism. Religious leaders in Wellington also condemned this act of wanton violation of a sacred place.
The network is a major initiative to come from the second national interfaith forum, held in Auckland last month.
The forum’s brief was to consider ways to work with governments to reduce conflict.
Catherine Jones SMSM who is one of Bishop Pat Dunn’s nominees on the Auckland Interfaith Council, said the network would exchange contacts, initiatives, strategies and activities that different people and groups are concerned with in various places.
For example the Auckland Interfaith Council campaigned last year for a more just hearing for Algerian refugee, Ahmed Zaoui. There was also a multi-faith group present at the ceremony in Wellington recently to welcome from France the remains of the unknown warrior.
From a Catholic viewpoint, Sr Catherine says, the forum was acting out a desire to implement one of the goals of the second Vatican council to promote dialogue between faiths.
‘There’s a political aspect in the sense that there’s a benefit (to the country) in improved inter-ethnic relations,’ she said.
‘In New Zealand, with the current context of migrants to this country, there’s a strong link between religion and ethnicity. A significant number of Muslims in New Zealand are recent migrants from Afghanistan, the Middle East or Ethiopia.
‘The government’s desire is to improve inter-ethnic relations and understanding and one way to do this is to draw on religious values and convictions.’
Sr Catherine said there was a need for education about the theology and practices of people of other faiths.
‘There is a high level of misinformation from the media or a lack of information about other faiths.
‘And within the faith traditions themselves there are significant differences between those of a liberal viewpoint and those who would take a more conservative approach,’ she said.
Sometimes, Sr Catherine said, we had to learn to live without complete understanding of each other and our different beliefs, to agree to disagree. She referred to a document from the Jewish-Christian dialogue, Dabru Emet (to speak the truth) ‘The humanly irreconcilable difference between Jews and Christians will not be settled until God redeems the entire world as promised in Scripture.
Victoria University Professor of Religious Studies, Paul Morris, told the conference New Zealand had a long way to go in terms of welcoming people of different cultures here. He referred to a recent case in the Auckland High Court where the judge questioned the validity of a woman wearing of burqa while giving evidence.
Professor Morris said that after he challenged the judge’s comments, he received more than 40 email messages, most condemning his stance on cultural diversity. He described it as bordering on ‘Islamophobia’.
New Zealand had not yet realised the implications of the changes in its demographic structure with an estimated 45,000 Muslims and 40,000 Hindus as well as people of diverse Christian religions from parts of Asia and from South Africa.
Professor Morris said it was important for those claiming to represent a particular group of people, to communicate with that community so they could fairly represent their views.
Meanwhile the national forum considered recommendations from last December’s regional Dialogue on Interfaith Cooperation in Indonesia. These included continuing a process of regional interfaith dialogue with Asian and Pacific governments to address the causes of religious conflict; establishing a New Zealand process for ongoing dialogue at the regional and national level; creating a forum dialogue between the government and interfaith groups and developing a national statement on religious tolerance.
Race relations commissioner, Joris de Bres, said facilitating greater cooperation between the government and interfaith groups to reduce religious conflict was part of the Human Rights Commission’s role. This role aimed to encourage harmonious relations between diverse groups.