26th April, 2009
Dear Member of Religions for Peace Australia,
Greetings again! And it is again time for the Annual General Meeting, and details are enclosed. You have been all receiving news on our email network, especially from WCRP or Religions for Peace International with its headquarters in New York because of its work with the UN. This will have kept you informed of developments internationally.
The Parliament of the World’s Religions
The executive committee members and most RfP members in Australia have been heavily involved in preparations for the Parliament of the World’s Religions to be held here in Melbourne on 3rd – 9th December in the brand new Convention Centre. I have been taken on a tour of the Centre which has just been completed, and it is magnificent, including with its 6-star green rating, well worth a visit if for no other reason. The main auditorium can hold 5,600 people and, as appropriate, it can be divided into three smaller auditoria. The Parliament with about 6,000 people in attendance will be the first really big event in the Centre.
Please access the website (www.parliamentofreligions.org) to keep yourself up-to-date with what is happening, particularly as more details become available. There will be 500 90-minute sessions during the Parliament as well as the evening plenary sessions. From across the world we received over 1,400 submissions for the 500 sessions; we are now reviewing each submission and we would hope to make the program available in June. Over the past twelve 12 months, it has been a mammoth organizational task just with these submissions as well as all the other details that have to be attended to such as volunteers, home stay details and all other accommodation details, protocol, the concert, the community evenings, security, liaision with governments etc. etc. For the program, the other major task has been gaining speakers and I think participants will be pleasantly surprised by the range and depth of speakers from across the world.
Clearly, the Parliament has been affected by the global financial crisis which will impact upon numbers in attendance. I want to encourage each of you to come and to encourage your friends to come. You will not be disappointed. It will be an historic event. As we had anticipated, there is criticism of the cost of registration. That is understandable though those who have attended international conferences and conventions and congresses in recent years will know that the registration cost is quite reasonable. To hire the new Melbourne Convention Centre and the adjoining Exhibition Centre (for the art and other exhibitions), the cost is $1.2 million for the week. In that context, the registration cost is reasonable.
What the Parliament will achieve, among other things, is to highlight the positive side of religion and the contribution it makes to the social capital of every country, including Australia. It will also highlight the positive contribution that people such as ourselves who work to bring the different faith traditions together to generate mutual understanding and cooperation make. Hopefully it will generate a new image for religion in this country.
The Manila ACRP Assembly
The major event during the year was the staging of the Regional Assembly of the Asian Conference of Religions for Peace in Manila last October. There were about 500 people in attendance, including ten Australians in attendance, representing our country. There were representatives from some new countries. Attached to this letter is the final communiqué which gives all the details as well as the recommendations. It will be the task of our executive committee to begin work on their implementation, especially once the Parliament is out of the way. The Assembly is held every five years, and over the next decade we will have to give thought to staging it in Australia. The new moderator-general is Professor Din Syamsuddin, head of Muhammadiyah in Indonesia, and I was elected as his deputy with the unanimous support of all nations which was very gratifying personally. This will allow me to have greater influence in the direction of the organization which needs to become more proactive in building peace infrastructure in the Asian region, especially in cities. After Manila, I flew to Mumbai to give a seminar on multicultural and multifaith Australia at one of the universities exactly three weeks before the terrorist attacks. I was surprised to learn that there was no local interfaith group. Of course, in this case, an interfaith group would not have prevented the attack (as it originated in Pakistan) but such groups can deal with the aftermath.
Sister Patricia Blundell from Brisbane was elected to the women’s committee and Petr Svobola from Melbourne to the youth committee. So congratulations to them.
In February after attending an important interfaith meeting in Brisbane, members of the Chinese Committee of Religions for Peace visited us in Melbourne. Discussions focussed on the Parliament and the attendance of a Chinese delegation. The Chinese made it clear they had three issues: (1) the attendance of the Dalai Lama (2) the attendance of the Falun Gong and (3) the attendance of a Taiwanese delegation. The conversation focussed especially on the Dalai Lama in which we asked for proof that the Dalai Lama was a political and military leader. The Chinese gave their explanation which can be seen in the accompanying notes from the meeting.
This has been a difficult issue for Australia, but neither the executive committee nor the Parliament’s Board of Management nor the Parliament’s Board of Trustees in Chicago could agree with the conditions set down by the Chinese, particularly in their wanting the Dalia Lama to be disinvited. So, unless there is a change of mind in Beijing, there will no Chinese from the People’s Republic of China at the Parliament. That is regrettable as it is noticeable that there has been a small shift towards a more positive attitude towards religion in recent years in China though the expected upturn after the Olympic Games has not occurred.
Freedom of Religion Project
Another activity during the year has been that Professor Gary Bouma, our vice-chairperson and I together with Dr. Hass Dellal of the Australian Multicultural Foundation have been commissioned by the Australian Human Rights Commission to examine the freedom of religion and the freedom of belief in Australia. This project started under the Howard government, and it has been generating some controversy around Australia, especially from the Religious Christian Right. We hope to report to the Commission early in 2010 based on our extensive consultations and the 2000+ submissions that have been made.
In writing this short report, I thank you for your support. Our focus over the past twelve months has been completely on organizing a successful Parliament, and so many of you have played key and supportive roles, including in the various pre-Parliament events. For example, our Tasmanian sub-branch is organizing such an event on Queen’s Birthday – all the best!
With my best wishes,
Desmond P. Cahill, (Prof.),
Chair, Religions for Peace Australia.