Emeritus Professor Desmond Cahill, Chair, Religions for Peace Australia, delivered the Annual Report for Religions for Peace Australia at the Annual General Meeting (online) on 15 June 2020. The report is given below.
Religions for Peace Australia
Annual Report – 2019-2020
Since my last 2018 – 2019 report prepared more than fourteen months ago, which had been prepared for the Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the Australian chapter of Religions for Peace in Canberra (June 17th, 2019) and initially for the annual executive meeting of the Asian Conference of Religions for Peace (ACRP) in Japan at Osaka on 10th – 13th April, 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic has completely changed the world. That previous report had been prepared in the immediate aftermath of the Christchurch massacre of 51 Muslims at two mosques. This year we endeavoured to hold an Australia-wide commemoration, given that the perpetrator was an Australian from the coastal town of Grafton but our efforts with the Prime Minister and State Premiers were overrun by the pandemic.
Australia has changed not only because of the pandemic but also because of the devastating bushfires whose devastation was poorly handled by the Australian Government. However, the Government has handled the virus threat well. Principally because of the virus threat, but also for other reasons it has been an innovative, even trail-blazing and busy year as Religions for Peace Australia has risen to the myriad challenges the year has presented.
Religions for Peace Australia and the Covid-19 Pandemic
By any measure, Australia has done remarkably well in combating the virus. As of the June 11th figures compiled by the John Hopkins University Coronavirus Data Center in Baltimore, using the deaths per 100,000 population, Australia compares very well, certainly with the US and the European countries as seen in the figures for selected countries: Australia (0.41 deaths per 100,000), Belgium (84.21), China, (0.33), Germany (10.53), India (0.57), Indonesia (0.72), Italy (56.33), Japan (0.73), New Zealand (0.45), South Korea (0.53), Spain (58.08), UK (61.62) and U.S. (34.14). Very soon after lockdown began, on March 20th RfP Australia brought together 15 of Australia’s senior ecumenical and interfaith leaders to make an interfaith statement (see here) that asked Australians to be correctly fearful but not despairing as all religious traditions had had much experience with pandemics in their histories, and suggesting that faith can be a sustaining force in times of need and threat. It asked faith leaders not to make extremist or mistaken interpretations of the causes of the plague. The statement prayed for those who had already died, for health care workers and for those living alone as well as for international students and those on temporary visas who were not being cared for by the Australian Government. It commended governments and other institutions for the steps already taken, including by banks.
Subsequent to this, Religions for Peace Australia affiliated organisations in their respective states liaised with the Prime Minister and other senior Australian ministers as well as with State leaders, especially in arguing the case for alleviating the plight of international students and temporary visaed workers such as seasonal workers from Pacific Island countries. In Victoria on May 6th., Religions for Peace brought together religious leaders with government officials from the Office of Multicultural Affairs and Citizenship and the Victorian Multicultural Commission – this led to a series of recommendations and to a meeting with the Victorian Minister for Multicultural Affairs to discuss the fractionalized nature of service delivery and the over-stretched welfare services of the faith communities other than Christian. The RfP Queensland affiliate, Griffith University’s Centre for Interfaith and Cultural Dialogue, under the leadership of Dr. Brian Adams, initiated a series of consciousness and coordination processes to address the pandemic crisis.
On June, Religions for Peace Australia made a detailed submission to the Senate Committee for COVID-19 (see here), endeavouring to map a way forward, not least in economic terms and giving scope for the development of energy renewal measures in the task of creating a green economy. All meetings were via ZOOM. At the time of writing, this is still requiring much work from the senior leaders of Religions for Peace, led by its secretary, Dr. Sue Ennis, whom we thank for her commitment and energy.
G20 Interfaith Summit Forum, Tokyo
The 2019 G20 Interfaith Summit Forum, the sixth to be held since the first in 2014 at Surfers’ Paradise, was organized partly by our Queensland affiliate, Griffith University’s Centre for Interfaith Dialogue and Culture headed up by Dr Brian Adams but led by the main organizers of this year’s forum, Professor Cole Durham, founding director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies at Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City and Professor Katherine Marshall, executive director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue and Senior Fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University in Washington DC. A major supporter was the KAICIID (King Abdallah bin Ab-dulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue) which with its headquarters in Vienna is a joint project of the Saudi Arabian, Austrian and Spanish governments with the Holy See as a founding observer. The forum was funded by an unorthodox Japanese businessman, Haruhisa Handa, who is also a Shinto religious leader and a performing artist who studied at the WA Performing Arts Centre in Perth. He is the patron-in-chief of Opera Australia. Mr Handa pointed out that at times of natural and medical disasters places of worship become very important as was seen in the ebola epidemic in Africa. Religious leaders are often the most trusted.
The sixth annual G20 Interfaith Forum was held in Tokyo, Japan on June 7th – 9th, 2019 with the theme of “Peace, People, Planet: Pathways Forward.” The 2019 forum was a more prestigious affair with greater gravitas given by the presence of three former prime ministers (David Cameron (UK), Enda Kenny (Ireland) and Sir John Key (New Zealand), the renowned African stateswoman from Mozambique and widow of Nelson Mandela, Graca Machal, and Lord George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. A message from Pope Francis was read by the Papal Nuncio to Japan, and the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the Green Patriarch, gave a videotaped message. The Pope emphasized that our planet is our common home, a gift from God. The Patriarch raised the issue of children and the dark web. On the second and third days, Japanese people expanded the audience to be about 1,100.
The 2019 theme, covering three of the UN’s “Five P’s” (peace, people, planet), was tackled by panellists in multiple breakout sessions throughout the forum. A central theme was the role that faith actors with their prophetic voices and expertise can play in addressing global issues such as in regard to refugees by actions of welcoming, protecting, promoting, integrating, conducting scoping briefs and developing policy briefs. Religious institutions were having to adapt their theologies to be inclusive and pluralist.
Multifaith Chaplaincy Project
Soon after the previous annual report and its initial 2017 – 2019 work in the area, Religions for Peace Australia received funding of $22,000 each year for a two-year project from the Victorian Multicultural Commission. Its aim is to extend and professionalize multifaith chaplaincy by recruiting and educating chaplains from recently arrived religious communities (including the Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communities and the Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches) through improving small chaplaincy training programs.
Part of the project has been to establish a special website, Multifaith Chaplaincy Australia, by our very committed webmaster, Chris Parnell. This website is in its infancy and is now averaging 15 visitors daily with most visitors coming from Australia. Visitors have (unusually) tended to stay longer than 15 minutes. Chaplaincy material on the pandemic has been especially popular in recent months. Unfortunately, the interview aspect of the project has been delayed during the height of the pandemic but will resume by the end of June. The lead researchers are Emeritus Professor Des Cahill and Dr. Sue Ennis.
New and Continuing International and Australian Partnerships
Our links with GreenFaith/Australian Religious Response to Climate Change (ARRCC) have continued to grow, specially with Thea Omerod, ARRCC’s leader, and Living the Change initiatives have continued, especially in South Australia, Tasmania and Victoria.
Religions for Peace Australia has been involved in other international activities. The most significant event was the World Assembly held in Lindau on Lake Constance in southern Germany in August, 2019, and heavily supported by the German Government whose foreign ministry has come to the view that religions are more part of the solution than part of the problem. It was a very significant moment in the history of Religions for Peace International in its 50-year history when the long-standing secretary-general, Dr. Bill Vendley, stepped down after 26 years at the helm. His replacement is Dr. Azza Karam, originally from Egypt with Arabic as her mother tongue – she had previously worked for RfP International and since 2004 for the U.N., particularly the United Nations Population Fund. Her 1996 thesis was on political Islam. Steve Killelea, head of The Charitable Fund from Sydney, stepped down from his position as Treasurer and became an honorary International President.
In mid-December, a large planning meeting was held in New York when Nivy Balachandran, our youth leader, represented Australia. Out of this has come a Strategic Vision for Religions for Peace, Building and Equipping Interreligious Councils (IRCs) for Action (May 2020). Six strategic goals to advance multi-religious collaboration have been set:
- Peaceful, just and inclusive societies
- Gender equality
- Freedom of thought, conscience and religion
- Interreligious education and
- Global partnerships.
The document outlines for the regional and national Interreligious Councils four methods of operationalization:
(b) knowledge management
(c) capacity building and
(d) humanitarian support.
In Interreligious Council development, expected levels of competence were expected to be reached in
- gender mainstreaming
- management and administration
- program operations
- institutional sustainability and
- global affiliation and networking.
The new Secretary-General has mapped out the future path for national chapters, including that of Australia.
Beijing – Interfaith Exchanges and Shared Future
At the same time in mid-December, an international seminar was held in Beijing, sponsored by the China Committee on Religions and Peace and entitled Interfaith Exchanges and Shared Future for Humanity . The conference had three themes, Climate Change, the Cultural Values of Religion and Religion and Social Harmony. Professor Cahill as Deputy Moderator led the 13-member delegation from Religions for Peace Asia (ACRP) and gave a paper, Overcoming Environmental Degradation through a Green Growth Economy: The Role of Religious Leadership.
All participants were taken to meet Xia Bao Long, Vice-Chairman and Secretary-General of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) which sits under the Chinese People’s Congress and has been described as an advisory upper house. Xia was previously governor of Zhejiang Province with Xi Jinping as party secretary – the province hosted the G20 Summit in Hangzhou in 2016. The next morning they were taken to meet Zhao Huimin, head of the Beijing CPPCC. In both meetings, the Chinese leaders commented favourably on the results of the Seminar which were explained to them by the leader of the ACRP international delegation and on the work of CCRP under the executive leadership of Deng Zhongliang and the CCRP Secretary-General, Mr Lacan. Formally and informally, the Chinese leaders spoke positively about the 2018 Agreement between the Vatican and the Chinese Government and welcomed a possible visit by Pope Francis. Professor Cahill had a long informal meeting with the two leading archbishops of the now united Chinese Catholic Church.
In February 2020, an informal relationship has begun with the UNESCO Chair in Bioethics which is attached to the Department of Education of the University of Haifa in Israel. In April – June, the Chair has held weekly webinars via ZOOM on the ethical aspects in the wake of the C-19 pandemic, especially as they pertain to medicine, psychiatry, dentistry and education, including of medical students. The webinar summaries have been published on the RfP Australia website.
The Queensland Centre for Interfaith and Cultural Dialogue has been very active at the international level. Its members have given papers either directly or online at Baku in Azerbaijan (Islamic Civilization in the Caucasus) and at the Baku International Youth Forum, in Jakarta (Towards United Human Values), in London (KAICIID Youth Programme), Vienna (Religious Responses to COVID-19), and Brussels (G20 Interfaith Forum).
RfP Australia has been heavily involved with Religions for Peace Asia, particularly in the preparations for the Asian Assembly scheduled for October 2020 in Tokyo after the Olympic Games. However, early in June 2020, the decision was made by the Assembly Steering Committee to postpone the Assembly by exactly one year after the rescheduled Olympic Games. Part of these preparations has been the finalizing of the New Constitution to be approved by the next Assembly. Also the Australian chapter has been at the centre of the process to resuscitate the New Zealand chapter. Negotiations are now proceeding to enable the Religious Diversity Trust in Auckland informally attached to the University of Otago to become the New Zealand national chapter.
RfP Australia has continued its links with FECCA (Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia) by sponsoring a session on interfaith and the multicultural agenda at the Hobart FECCA conference in which the Rev. Tim Costello also participated. This initiative was heavily supported by RfP Tasmania led by the tireless Terry Sussmilch. A similar session was held in Parramatta in February 2020 at the Advancing Community Cohesion Conference sponsored by the University of Western Sydney and organized by Dr. Sev Ozdowski, chair of the Australian Multicultural Council. The four contributors (Dr. Brian Adams, Professor Des Cahill, Dr. Adis Duderija and Dr. Sue Ennis) are all RfP leaders – Dr. Duderijia is deputy director of the Griffith Centre on Interfaith Dialogue and Culture and an expert of progressive Islam.
Our website, https://www.religiousforpeaceaustralia.org.au, continues to forge ahead, under the global-roving eye of our webmaster, Rev. Chris Parnell, providing an unparalleled service to Australia and the world. As anticipated in the 2017-18 report, the number of hits or total page views for the first time had topped the million with a total of 1,059,701 in 2018-19, an increase of 15.7 per cent from the previous year. The number of unique visitors was 47,116, an increase of 22.3 per cent. There was a rise in the number of visitors from Australia while others were from (in order) the United States, China, Turkey, Germany, France, Canada, Poland, India, Great Britain and The Philippines. As the Table below shows, for the year 2019 – 2020, there were 1,883,961 hits, a massive increase of 77.8 per cent over the previous year although only a small rise (7.4%) in unique visitors.
(SSL = Secure Socket Layer, it represents all those visitors who surf the web only using the https:// protocol)
The six top downloads were in order: (a) The Muslim Australians document, (b) Diverse Faiths of Tasmania (c) The Golden Rule of Interfaith (d) Religion and Cultural Diversity Report (e) the Child Sex Abuse in the Catholic Church report and (f) the Multifaith Audit of Australia.
The ancilliary website, Multifaith Education Australia, averaged 33 visitors per day
The six top downloads were (a) The JCMA (Jewish, Christian, Muslim Australia) Nine-Point Guide Book (b) The RfP Australia Code of Conduct (c) Hindu Special Religious Instruction Materials (d) Discovering Buddha – Special Religious Instruction Materials (e) Beirut Declaration on Faith for Rights (UNHCR) and (f) Baha’I Materials for Special Religious Instruction.
UN World Interfaith Harmony Week Addresses
Unfortunately, the UN Interfaith Week Address during early February in Parliament House working in tandem with the Parliamentarian Friends of Multiculturalism, Russell Broadbent (Liberal), Maria Vamvakinou (Labor) and Senator Richard Di Natale (Greens) was not able to be held this year, principally because of the impact of the bushfires during the key organizational period. In Melbourne, Religions for Peace Victoria in conjunction with Melbourne University’s chaplaincy sponsored the UN Address with David Schutz, executive officer for the Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne, who spoke on the interfaith attitudes and initiatives of Pope John Paul II, particularly focusing on the Assisi meetings where he invited world faith leaders to join him at Assisi for prayers and dialogue session.
State and Territory Affiliates
In addition to the above initiatives, our state chapters and affiliated bodies continue to be very active, and Professor Samina Yasmeen of the University of Western Australia has become an observer member of the national RfP executive as has a representative from the Northern Territory. Interaction, the youth network, is currently in a dormant state but we hope to take some new initiatives in the next little while.
New South Wales
In New South Wales, the state chapter led by Josie Lacey with her formidable longstanding contribution to interfaith and multiculturalism continues to have its regular meetings in the State Parliament House, each led with an overview by Walter Secord MLC. Its members come from the Baha’I, Buddhist, Christian (Catholic, Coptic and Protestant), Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and Zoroastrian faith traditions. Zohra Aly discussed Ramadan, and how the Muslim community was managing during the pandemic lockdown. The Women’s Interfaith Network continues its valuable work to meet regularly for sessions of praying and cordial exchange.
In addition to its work on the Multifaith Chaplaincy Project and its COVID-19 work, the Victorian chapter organized its own Living with Change event in September with ARRCC and URI, and has continued its membership of the Victoria Police Multifaith Council after its restructuring. The chapter has also been linking with the Faith Communities Council of Victoria, including participating in the Annual Victorian Interfaith Networks Conference. On the child safety issue, Professor Cahill gave public evidence in Auckland to the New Zealand Royal Commission into Abuse and Care in State-based and Faith-based Institutions and participated in a seminar on the same topic with the Victorian Commission on Children and Young People.
Besides its G20 work and other international presentations presented above, the members of the Queensland Centre for Interfaith Dialogue and Culture have presented at Wisdom College in Brisbane, various Baha’I functions, the Australian Human Rights Commission on Islamophobia in Australia, the Commonwealth Day Multi-Faith Service at St. John’s Anglican Cathedral in Brisbane and at the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women in Brisbane and at the Earth Ethics conference in Melbourne.
The Centre has been especially concerned about the continuing pernicious presence of right-wing and nationalist extremist groups and there needs to be better community partnering in combatting it.
Our South Australian affiliate, the Multifaith Association of South Australia (MFA), has engaged in leading interfaith prayers and celebrations. On Australia Day (January 20th, 2020), Interfaith Prayers for Bushfire Recovery and Resilience were held at St. Peter’s Cathedral with prayers shared by Anglican, Baha’I, Brahma Kumari, Buddhist, Catholic, Hindu, Latter Day Saints, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Unitarian and Uniting Church leaders. The traditional End of Year Gathering was held at the Unitarian Meeting House in Norwood on the theme of Engaging with Community – Serving in a Troubled World. The Interfaith Celebration for the International Day of Peace at the Baha’I Centre for Learning focused on Climate Action for Peace led by the First Nation Kaurna Elder, Uncle Allen Edwards. Multifaith Association of South Australia organized an International Prayer Vigil for Healing the Earth on the Vigil of ANZAC Day to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Kaurna Elder Frank Wanganeen explained the importance of water to his people with each faith community bringing a flask of water to symbolize our connection with the divine to pour into a single vessel and the Elder returned the water to the River Karrawirra Parri.
In February 23rd, 2020, their AGM was held and led to a re-invigorated Committee followed by a lively discussion on the implications of the proposed Religious Discrimination Bill from an interfaith perspective. Its president, Philippa Rowland, was the major contributor to the RfP submission on COVID-19 to the Senate Select Committee.
2019 – 2020 has been a red letter year for the vibrant Tasmanian chapter. Its most important achievement was the establishment of a Tasmanian Faith Communities Network with Terry Sussmilch as its convenor. Working with the Speaker, a meeting was organized of faith leaders at Parliament House in Tasmania which was led by RfP chair, Emeritus Professor Des Cahill. The network has proved a crucial channel in funnelling information to faith communities during Covid-19, especially in regard to temporary visa holders, many of whom are members of some faith communities. This work has also been in liaison with the Emergencies Ministry support person from the Tasmanian Council of Churches.
In September and November 2019, RfP Tasmania organized two workshops at the University of Tasmania’s Multifaith Centre as part of ARRCC’s Living the Change and helped celebrate World Environment Day in June 2020 honouring Tasmania’s Aboriginal peoples, their care for the environment and, as their gift to the world, dadirri or deep listening to country.
RfP Tasmania participated in the organization of the Deepavali Tasmania event in November 2019 as part of Diwali. It was voted as the City of Hobart Community Event of the Year 2019. Finally, in October 2019 RfP Tasmania was very commendably given one of the two inaugural Multicultural Awards for 2019 for establishing the Faith Communities’ Network and for the Living the Change workshops.
In Canberra, the Canberra Interfaith Forum (CIF) under the leadership of Dean Sahu Khan were hoping to celebrate the eighth anniversary of the establishment of its Environmental Meditation and Healing Garden but this was prevented by the distancing rules of the pandemic. Before the pandemic, in November CIF had a public function for International Day of Tolerance on the theme, “Are we still a tolerant society? Where to from here?” In February as part of the National Multicultural Festival, an interfaith event was organized on the theme, “Valuing our Cultural and Religious Diversity”. In May an online interfaith prayer service was organized, drafted by CIF.
I want once again to thank all the RfP members across Australia for their support and great work. Every day, both nationally and internationally, religion continues to figure very prominently in many and varied ways. Our work is important and is part of building a multicultural and interfaith society. But this past year the challenges have been significant. But every crisis presents opportunity and there have been trail-blazing responses to the challenges as well as new initiatives.
Desmond Cahill, OAM (Emeritus Professor),
Chair, Religions for Peace Australia,