The 2017 Victorian Interfaith Networks Conference took place at Ulumbarra Theatre, Bendigo, on the afternoon of Sunday, 12 November. The conference was well attended with visitors coming from Melbourne, Geelong, Ballarat, Bendigo and Shepparton.
Margot Spalding – a former Telstra Business Woman of the Year – was Master of Ceremonies. Ms Spalding is the leader of the Believe in Bendigo campaign to fight anti-mosque sentiment and shore up community strength. Ms Spalding, who has received hate mail and whose home has been under police surveillance, said she believes “it is too important for Bendigo and Australia and other regions that a mosque goes ahead”.
The Conference was opened by Cr Margaret O’Rourke, Mayor of Greater Bendigo. Cr O’Rourke is an active business person in Bendigo and addressed the strengths of the community and the roles played by the Bendigo Interfaith Council and the Aspire Project at the Sandhurst Cathedral.
Faith Communities Council of Victoria chairperson Murray Davies called upon people of faith to help eliminate family violence. “Sacred texts, scriptures, cultures and traditions should not be used as a way to justify or excuse violence against women,” he said.
“We (the Faith Communities Council of Victoria) undertake a journey together to raise awareness in our communities and to stop violence against women before it occurs. “Its (family violence) roots are abuse of power and control of one person over another.”
Mr Davies then read out a statement from the Faith Communities Council of Victoria on the prevention of family violence and violence against women. This statement is issued on the eve of International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (November 25).
Mr Davies then invited Dr Ree Bodde of Think Prevent to address the gathering. Think Prevent is a bystander intervention program focused on preventing family violence and violence against women, puts faith leaders, men and women from culturally, religiously and linguistically diverse backgrounds, at the heart of prevention efforts. Everyone has a role to play in the prevention of violence and while no one can do everything, everyone can do something.
Dr Ree Bodde gave a very personal overview of her experiences with violence and being a bystander; this was extraordinarily powerful, subtle and yet not strident presentation of the ugliness of violence, its impact upon persons, and that bystanders may and can take action. Dr Ree Bodde went on to lead one of the Workshops later during the Conference.
The Keynote talk was given by Daniel Nellor, advisor to the Australian Human Rights Commissioner on Religious Freedom (Mr Edward Santow). Religious liberty is fundamental to the Australian way of life and liberal democratic values. It is enshrined in the Australian Constitution. But it is not the only freedom that matters. There is a rising tension between accommodating differing freedoms in 21st century Australia. The changing face of Australia continues to raise challenges about the limits of secularism while creating a society that celebrates diversity. It also creates challenges for the place of religion In the public square.
The challenge facing people of faith is how they should react and respond to the increasing diversification of society and the place of faith in contemporary Australia.
Daniel Nellor told the audience there was concern among religious communities that changing social attitudes on sexuality and gender may have an adverse affect on their rights to maintain their traditional stance on these matters.
“We (Australian Human Rights Commission) believe there is an important distinction between civil and religious marriage – no religious practitioner should be required to solemnise a civil marriage,” he said, suggesting every piece of proposed legislation regarding marriage equality supported that stance.
“Some of the claims relating to religious freedom arising from marriage equality have been exaggerated – not all of them – but that does not mean there isn’t more we can do to protect religious freedom in this country.”
Daniel Nellor speaking at the Interfaith Conference, Bendigo, on Freedom of Religion
Federally, no laws were currently in place that prohibited discrimination on the basis of religion, he said.
In a wide-ranging speech, Mr Nellor spoke of the “constant threat” of anti-semitism in Australia.
“It rises and falls, but it’s always there,” he said.
Islamophobia, including public calls the ban the burqa, opposition to planning applications for mosques, verbal abuse of Muslim people in public spaces and the anti-Muslim sentiment in certain sections of Australian federal parliament, added up to “a genuine threat to freedom of religion in Australia”, he said.
The commission would work toward potential legal remedies to current federal laws, but Mr Nellor believed human rights, and its association with human dignity, can have a cohesive role going forward for Australia’s rapidly-changing religious environment.
Four workshops then followed the Keynote Talk.
1: Religious Freedom & Social Cohesion
2: Educational Program for Schools – Understanding Religious Diversity
3: Active bystander training to prevent violence against women
4: Introductory Training Workshop for Emergencies Ministry
The conference was then followed by “We Are The World”, a concert presenting a blend fo traditional music styles and dance, ending with Federation Bells and audience bells.
View of Conference Stands
Another view of Conference Stands
Interfaith meeting, greeting, networking, a fabulous time
Members of the Bendigo Interfaith Council at Registration
Emmergency Ministries workshop at the conference
With grateful thanks to Faith Communities Council of Victoria, the City of Greater Bendigo, Bendigo Interfaith Council and Sandy Kouroupidis for organising and providing this conference.