14th May 2011
Dear RfP Members,
Greetings! I trust that this message of our 2010-11 activities finds you all well.
This past year has, as in previous years, been a very busy one for the Religions for Peace Australia (RfP Australia) with some significant achievements as the Australian interfaith movement has grown and diversified since the 2009 Melbourne Parliament of the World’s Religions. A pleasing feature has been the re-invigoration of our executive committee with some younger, talented and committed members – Dr. Anna Halafoff has become our deputy chairperson, recently completing her Ph.D. thesis on the world interfaith movement, Netpeace: Multifaith Movements and Common Security while our new secretary, Sue Ennis, who has almost completed her doctoral thesis on Religion, Spirituality and the Refugee Experience, has become our hardworking secretary.
Internationally, it has also been an important year because late in 2010 it was forty years since the foundation of the World Conference of Religions for Peace, and the next Parliament of the World’s Religions has been awarded to the City of Brussels.
There have been five major interfaith features in 2010 – 11 in which RfP Australia has been involved and which have implications for the future of the movement in Australia:
1. Regional Interfaith Website
Australia and New Zealand together with several countries in South-East Asia have in recent years held regional interfaith forums. The most recent in Perth in late 2009 recommended setting-up a website which was contracted under the auspices and funding of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Under the umbrella of the Australian Multicultural Foundation, RfP Australia together with the Melbourne Interfaith Centre (headed by Rev. Helen Summers, a member of our executive) and the Islamic Council of Victoria, won the tender to construct the website, which was launched in April, 2011. The challenge now is to see that the website is appropriately used and to raise the funding needed to maintain it on a daily basis. An advertising flyer is attached to this report, and the web address is http://www.regionalinterfaith.org.au/
2. Parliamentary Friends of Interfaith
Under the leadership of the Australian Partnership of Religious Organizations (APRO), RfP Australia met with more than a dozen parliamentarians in Canberra who expressed an interest in being involved in forming a Friends of Interfaith. Both sides of parliament were involved, and members were keen to hear about the interfaith movement in Australia, and raised some current issues. Appointed were two co-convenors, namely, the Labor ACT senator, Kate Lundy, and the Liberal ACT senator, Gary Humphries. This is very important step as it means that we have a direct link into Parliament, and the fact that the meeting was conducted in a positive bipartisan spirit was very noteworthy. A statement has been presented to the parliamentarians.
3. Launch of AHRC Report
In Canberra on March 31st., the report to the Australian Human Rights Commission, Freedom of Religion in 21st Century Australia, was launched by the Anti-Racism Commissioner, Graham Innes in Canberra. Authored by Gary Bouma, Des Cahill, Hass Dellal and Athalia Zwartz, it was based on consultations with religious leaders around Australia, more than 2,000 submissions and a series of commissioned papers. The research suggests that it has become more difficult to resolve contentious religious issues because there are three contesting macro-views of Australia, each with many variants, namely (1) Australian as Christian (2) Australia as secularist and (3) Australia as multifaith. The report as well as the papers and some of the submissions can be downloaded from the websites of The Australian Human Rights Commission and the Australian Multicultural Foundation.
4. Religious Education in Australia and the Work of RfP Australia
Religious education has over the past few years become a contentious issue, especially in the two largest states of New South Wales and Victoria. On December 2nd, 2010, RfP Australia, led by Anna Halafoff and assisted by Dr. Cathy Byrnes (Macquarie University, Sydney) and a trio of religious education specialists from the Australian Catholic University (Professors Peta Goldberg, Marian De Souza and Kath Engebretson), helped sponsor a religious education conference at Monash University, exactly one year after the Parliament of the World’s Religions.
In NSW, the controversy has focussed on the teaching of secular ethics in government schools whereas in Victoria the focus has been on the weekly 30-minute religious instruction class taught by volunteers, especially the work of ACCESS ministries, the Protestant Christian group. This has led to a wider debate about the place of religion in the new school curriculum being prepared by the Australian curriculum authorities. There are some who want to see religious education as a separate school subject whereas the predominant view at the moment is that it should be incorporated into the subject, Civics and Citizenship. This will be an ongoing issue, but the crucial time is NOW so the multifaith voice must be heard.
In Victoria, RfP Australia continues to coordinate the teaching of the Baha’I, Buddhist, Greek Orthodox, Hindu and Sikh faiths into Victorian government schools.
5. Bilateral Agreement with the Chinese Committee of Religions for Peace
At the 2010 RfP Asia executive meeting in Beijing, our Chinese counterpart, the Chinese Conference of Religions for Peace asked us to enter into a memorandum of understanding based on the one they have with the UK. The executive committee has been working on this MoU, and we will discuss it with the Chinese interfaith leaders in Kuala Lumpur in May, 2011. This has not been an easy issue for Australia because of the feelings of Australian Tibetan Buddhists.
Across Australia, our different branches continue to function. The NSW branch has been reinvigorated, led by Josie Lacey to whom we are most grateful. They continue to hold their meetings in the NSW Parliament House and there has been an influx of new NSW members. This activity has led to a questioning of the current operating structure of RfP Australia, and it has become clear that some new structural arrangements will need to emerge.
The leaders of the State branches will come together on the day of the Annual General Meeting to discuss the issues so as to lay firm foundations for the future. RfP Australia has strengthened its relationship with the Multifaith Association of South Australia with Ann Aisatullin replacing Elizabeth Young as its representative on the executive committee – we thank Elizabeth, who has become a Catholic nun, for her liaison work over the past several years. RfP Australia, in the follow-up to the Parliament of the World’s Religions, played a role in the establishment of the Faith Communities’ Council of Victoria. The Women’s Interfaith Network groups, led by Josie Lacey, have continue their very effective work, especially in Sydney. Financially, RfP Australia has become stronger, allowing it to pay its dues to RfP Asia and to fund other small initiatives. But it is modest in the scale of what could be achieved.
Internationally, we have signed an affiliation agreement with our parent body in New York. In October 2010, the United Nations proclaimed the first week of February as an annual World Interfaith Harmony Week. This initiative is a wonderful achievement. RfP Australia raised the issue whether in Australia the week should be held during Harmony Week (3rd week of March), but APRO has decided it will be in early February, notwithstanding the difficulties this causes in the Southern Hemisphere, especially for schools and universities being so early in the academic year. Helen Summers through her Centre organized a magnificent launch dinner in Queen’s Hall of the Victorian Parliament.
Finally, I thank my executive committee all of whom this year have been very supportive, giving of their time on a totally voluntary basis. As the parliamentarians have recognized, ours is very important work.
Desmond P. Cahill (Prof.),
Chair, RfP Australia