Religions for Peace Australia: Annual Report, 2014 ~ 2015

Prof. Desmond Cahill, OAM, Chair, Religions for Peace Australia, delivered the Annual Report for 2014-2015 at the recently convened Annual General Meeting in Canberra. Prof. Cahill addresses the local situation, the 8th General Assembly of the Asian Conference of Religions for Peace, and provides an overview of Religions for Peace activities in all states during the year.


Annual Report ~ 2014-2015

This report for 2014 – 15 has been prepared for the Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the Australian chapter of Religions for Peace in Canberra (June 7th) and for the annual executive meeting of the Asian Conference of Religions for Peace in Bandung on June 2nd – 4th, 2015. The past twelve months since the last historic AGM in Canberra for the first time outside Melbourne since the chapter was first founded in Melbourne in the very early 1970’s has been characterised by some notable achievements but with several setbacks or difficulties.

Issues and Activities in Australia

Australia is a successful multicultural and interfaith nation state whose population continues to grow strongly as well as its economy though there are some economic headwinds ahead. The Australian religious context has been marked by a rise in Islamophobia as well as anti-Semitic attacks upon Jewish people and their facilities. Several planned terrorist attacks were thwarted in Melbourne by police intervention, whilst the siege on Café Lindt in the heart of the Sydney CBD gained worldwide attention. There is much concern about the radicalization of young Muslims to fight with Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and also about their possible return. The execution by the Indonesian government of two drug runners, Andrew Chan and Sukhamaran, generated much heat because of Australia’s deep-seated opposition to capital punishment – the last execution in Australia was in 1968. Another issue was the clerical child sex abuse scandal which has been impacting on the Christian, particularly Catholic, communities but also on the Buddhist, Hindu and Jewish communities – a Royal Commission led by Justice McClelland is presently addressing this issue.

In May 2014, Religions for Peace convened an interfaith workshop in Melbourne and an interfaith forum in the N.S.W. Parliament House as a prelude to participation in an interfaith roundtable of the Australian Multicultural Council within the Multicultural Policy Section of the Commonwealth Department of Social Services. The RfP input focused on the following four points:

  1. Quality religious leadership and the place of religious law in the context of social cohesion: Australia needs quality educated religious leaders who understand that religious law, whether it is Catholic canon law or Anglican church law or Muslim Shari’a law or Jewish religious law, is always subservient to the civil and criminal law in a democratic society though accommodation can be made for some religious practices when fundamental human rights are not contravened.
  2. Multifaith intersection with secular humanist Australia and the global civil society. Australia’s self-narrative needs to move beyond the twin pillars of Enlightenment humanism and the Judaeo-Christian tradition by incorporating the various Asian traditions, especially Confucian humanism and the Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu traditions as these communities grow across Australia.
  3. Signs and symbols in multifaith Australia: As Australia changes and grows demographically in becoming part of Asia, it needs to examine its signs and symbols together with multifaith ceremonies at times of national celebrations and tragedy. This will need dialogue and imagination in moving Australia beyond its British colonial heritage.
  4. The role of chaplains in multifaith Australia: There are now hundreds of chaplains across Australia, in the defence forces, in prisons, in schools, in universities, in hospitals, in factories and at times of emergencies. With their pastoral care, they give witness to the spiritual and transcendent in life. As human beings, we are conceived in mystery and we die in mystery, whether in a hospital bed or on the battlefield or wherever. Increasingly, these chaplains, whilst giving witness to their own spiritual tradition (although it is to be noted there are 40+ interfaith ministers and chaplains), operate in multifaith contexts. Chaplaincy in Australia needs to be further professionalized.

There were other issues raised in the discussions including (a) the addressing of religious extremism (b) the mitigating of the impact of overseas events (c) the incorporation of Aboriginal spiritualities into Australian social and religious life and (d) interfaith and access to the media, including the increasing religious illiteracy of journalists.

The two other highlights of 2014 – 2015 were (i) Australia’s participation in the Regional Assembly of the Asian Conference of Religions for Peace at Incheon in South Korea from 25th – 28th August, 2014 and (ii) the staging of the inaugural U.N. Interfaith Week Address in the national Parliament House in Canberra on 11th February.

Regional Assembly of the Asian Conference of Religions for Peace at Incheon in South Korea

The overall theme for the Eighth Assembly was Unity and Harmony in Asia. Attended by 15 Asian nations, it called for national leaders of the Asia and the Pacific to work strenuously for peace between nations on the basis of sincere dialogue and international reconciliation as war and conflict are always a defeat of the human spirit. It welcomed RfP International’s stress on ‘welcoming the other’. It highlighted the Global Peace Index data which suggests that there are eight key indicators of a peaceful nation called ‘the eight pillars of peace’: (a) a well-functioning government (b) a sound business environment (c) an equitable distribution of resources (d) an acceptance of the human rights of others (e) good relationships with neighbouring nations (f) free flow of information (g) high level of human capital and (h) low levels of corruption.

The Assembly urged the political and religious leaders of Asia to ensure and promote that all persons are able to fully practise their religion as a basic human right, including the two rights to educate their children in their own religious tradition and to change and choose their religion in accordance with the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. On the basis of the work of its three commissions, the Assembly urged religious leaders to encourage and support their governments to develop appropriate policies and practical programs around the eight pillars of peace, especially in their treatment of vulnerable and at-risk groups, including women and children as well as migrants, refugees and stateless people. In particular, it encouraged governments and religious leaders to work strongly against the evils of child labour, child trafficking, child marriage and drug trafficking. It also urges governments to treat migrants and refugees according to international law and to sign the international convention on stateless people.

All members of the family of Religions for Peace Asia (ACRP) share in the task of caring for the environment. The failure to conserve, preserve and restore the global environment impacts upon social, economic and religious peace. Nuclear disasters present another extreme danger to the environment.

Women leaders of ACRP pointed to the universality of issues affecting women: the violence against women, gender inequality in policy and practice, the discrimination against girls and women and the need for women’s equitable participation in achieving peaceful development within civil societies. They advocated an empowering of women to compete in land, labour and product markets.

For the first time ever, the Assembly highlighted how Asia is rapidly becoming urbanized with 10 of the world’s 21 megacities in Asia. The Assembly urged religious communities to work with governments in making cities more habitable and sustainable where people can live, work, relax and prosper in a fully human way.

During the Eighth Assembly of Religions for Peace Asia, a special workshop on peace on the Korean peninsula was held with the theme of Reconciling and Unifying the Korean Peninsula. The Assembly affirmed that the only peaceful solution to division is through dialogue, reconciliation and co-operation. The workshop highlighted the current military impasse across the DMZ, the difficulties of the North-South dialogue, the tragic stories of divided families and the attempts to win the peace. It supported the words of the Pope, speaking to an Asia youth gathering during his August visit to Korea, who said the best hope for reunification of the Korean peninsula lay in brotherly love and a spirit of forgiveness. He said, “You are brothers who speak the same language. When you speak the same language in a family, there is also human hope”. The youth leaders of ACRP committed themselves to promoting the message that Korea needs unification, dismissing as false the argument that it would reduce the wealth of the Republic of Korea whilst understanding the pain of Korea’s grandparents.

The Assembly summarized its discussions with eleven recommendations. In its final session, the ACRP Assembly movingly thanked the outgoing secretary-general, Dr Sunggon Kim, for his dedication and commitment over the past ten years and elected, as his successor, Reverend Yoshitaka Hatakeyama from Japan. Elected as co-moderators were Professor Din Syamsuddin (Indonesia) and Venerable Ja Seung (Republic of Korea). Co-Presidents were chosen from Australia, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, the Republic of Korea and the Philippines.

You may read the Incheon Declaration, 8th General Assembly, Asian Conference of Religions for Peace here

Inaugural UN World Interfaith Harmony Week Address – Parliament House, Canberra

The second major highlight of the RfP Australia year was the inaugural address in Parliament House in Canberra to mark U.N. Interfaith Week on 11th. February, 2015, facilitated by the Canberra Interfaith Forum, its president, Dean Sahu Khan and its secretary, Willie Senanayake. It was lead by two parliamentarians who co-chair the Parliamentary Friends of Multiculturalism, Mrs Maria Vamvakinou (Labor) and Mr Russell Broadbent (Liberal). The actual address was given by Mr Nihal Gupta, chair of the multicultural Special Broadcasting Service (television and radio) who spoke on the role of the media in religious conflict. Other speeches were given by Mr Khan and Professor Desmond Cahill. Almost 100 people were in attendance, including many diplomats as well as parliamentarians. It is hoped that this will become an annual event at the parliamentary heart of the Australian nation.

G20 Interfaith Summit

RfP Australia was a strong supporter of the G20 Interfaith Summit at Surfers’ Paradise near Brisbane, held alongside the meeting of the G20 world leaders in November, 2014. It was very successfully organized by the Centre for Interfaith and Cultural Dialogue at Griffith University under the leadership of Dr Brian Adams with religious leaders and academics from around the world in attendance. Di Hersh, a member of the Victorian committee gave a presentation. RfP Australia is supporting the Griffiths Centre in replicating these G20 Interfaith Summits at Istanbul (2015) and China (2016). It also participated in the World Peace Forum held in Indonesia with five case studies on Nigeria, Kosovo, Myanmar, Aceh and Mindanao. Details were given of the Mindanao peace agreement signed after 17 years in which women played a key peace-making role.

RfP Australia’s Website: Our website (www.religionsforpeaceaustralia.org.au) has been a spectacular success since its launch in May 2011 under the very competent direction of our webmaster, Chris Parnell, to whom we are very indebted. In 2011, it received 60,230 hits, moving to 309,852 hits in 2012 in its full year of operation, to 670,000 in 2013 and for the calendar year of 2014, it received 710,371 hits. In 2014, there were 25,075 unique visitors making 46,154 visits viewing 251,787 pages. Activity peaked in March with the talk on “Re-Imagining our Future” and RfP Victoria AGM. It was also active during the G20 Interfaith Summit. Most popular downloaded articles included the 2011 Report on Freedom of Religion and Belief in 21st Century Australia, the Golden Rule, Innovations in Dialogue to Counter Conflict and the report, Religion, Cultural Diversity and Safeguarding Australia.

Interestingly in 2013, we had 12,000 visitors on site using mobile devices whereas during 2014, the number of such visitors doubled to 24,000. Tasmania, Victoria and South Australia are very popular subsections of our website. Most people surf websites and are gone in 30 seconds whereas now 23 per cent of visitors stay on site for longer than 2 minutes. In July 2014, RfP Australia launched another website, Multifaith Education Australia, which in that year received 18,000 visitors whereas by May of this year the site has already passed 21,000 page views as more education resources and materials are added.

During 2014 – 2015, we have solidified our new national structure with regular meetings of the national executive via phone conferencing to overcome Australia’s tyranny of distance. To overcome our problems in Queensland, the Centre for Interfaith and Cultural Dialogue at Griffith University has been formally invited to become that state’s RfP affiliate. That would add strength and academic depth to our national profile, especially if the G20 Interfaith Summits can become a regular feature of G20 summits. We still struggle with establishing a chapter in Western Australia but there is a network of interested people forming. We have also been liaising with New Zealand and Foji to encourage their participation in ACRP.

New South Wales:

The New South Wales chapter under the leadership of Josie Lacey continues to hold its regular monthly meetings at Parliament House in Sydney. One of its speakers was Sister Elizabeth Delaney, newly appointed as the executive officer of the National Council of Churches of Australia. It organized the important interfaith forum in May 2014 which drew national attention. And it organized a trip to a Sikh gurdwara at Austral in December 2014. The Women’s Interfaith Network has now been operating for 16 years, and the chapter has been supporting the activities of the Australian Partnership of Religious Organizations.

Victoria:

The Victorian chapter has been mainly involved in the Special Religious Instruction in Government Schools controversy with a new government policy being implemented. It has been working with the Baha’i, Buddhist, Greek Orthodox, Hindu and Sikh communities in ensuring their instructional materials reach the necessary standard and in delivering four workshops on the implementation process. It supported the luncheon for U.N. Interfaith Week event in the Victorian Parliament House organized by Rev. Helen Summers of the Interfaith Centre of Melbourne. The Victorian Branch then organized its own annual lecture at Monash University, delivered by Associate Professor Nazir Butrous, who grew up in Mosul, and who spoke on the Iraqi situation. In May 2014, the Branch worked with the Centre for Global Research at RMIT University in sponsoring a symposium on Religious Freedom and Tolerance in the 21st Century with, as speakers, Professor Fred Wood from Brigham Young University, a top-level barrister, Mr Neville Rochow and Professor Des Cahill. It also sponsored a young RMIT student, Kaisha Crupi, to do her internship at the RfP office in New York. The chapter has also been supporting the Pathways initiative led by Dr Paul Tonson in teaching religion in secondary schools. And its membership of the Victoria Police Multifaith Council has continued.

South Australia:

The South Australian Interfaith Association with its 200-person network has continued its work. It sponsored its Fifth Annual Symposium on Healing and Harm at the University of South Australia. It arranged visits to the Coptic Church Museum and to a Sikh gurdwara. Its chair, Damien Outtrim was asked by the Governor of South Australia, Huu Van Le, to be the speaker at a ceremony for presenting multicultural awards. At Easter 2015, it delivered a message for peace and harmony. It has also brought members of the Uniting Church and the Muslim Women’s Association together for a dialogue session.

Tasmania:

On 30th November 2014, the Tasmanian chapter under the leadership of Terry Sussmilch held its Annual Human Rights Week event at the University of Tasmania with the main speaker being a Sri Lankan priest caring for refugees in Tasmania. Earlier in July it had played a key role in a religious festival at the Museum of Old and New Art.

Australian Capital Territory – ACT

The Canberra affiliate continued its support of the Environmental Meditation and Healing Council in Barton with various social and environmental events. It once again sponsored the Interfaith and Multicultural Festival at Civic Square in February, 2015. In May 2014, after the RfP AGM, it sponsored a public interfaith symposium on Valuing our Diversity: Not Simply Tolerating Our Differences with Bishop Steven Pickard, head of the Centre for Christianity and Culture, and Associate Professor Mehmet Ozalp. And, as mentioned above, it played the key role in the inaugural U.N. Interfaith Address in Parliament House.

The financial situation of Religions for Peace has moved to desperation stage as a result of the incoming Victorian government’s decision not to fund the co-ordinating religious organizations. This has had a dramatic effect on our financial situation but negotiations have begun with the Victorian Department of Education and Training to resolve the current impasse. Jo Elvins has resigned as treasurer due to ill-health, and we are now in the process of looking for a new treasurer. For this reason, we are not presenting an audited report at this point in time. I want to thank Jo and her husband Weston for their indefatigable work over many decades, sometimes in very difficult circumstances, in taking care of our accounting details and providing audited reports.

Finally, may I thank Sue Ennis, our very hard-working secretary. Sue keeps the organization afloat as well as the other hard-working members of all our state chapters and affiliate organizations. To each and every person of the Australia-wide network of Religions for Peace Australia may I thank you all for this work which is important in bringing about interreligious acceptance and understanding and social cohesion. May I also commend to you for action the eleven A.C.R.P. Assembly recommendations. (See link above)

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