The Assisi Event, Interfaith Cooperation and Freedom of Religion in Australia

Prof. Des Cahill

Occasional address given in Hobart on 4th December, 2011 at an interfaith event organised by the Tasmanian branch of Religions for Peace Australia for Human Rights Week.

by Desmond Cahill, Chair, Religions for Peace Australia

The Assisi Event

Several weeks ago, religious leaders from across the world including Master Chin Kun from Toowoomba in Queensland and Professor Din Syamsuddin, moderator of Religions for Peace Asia, gathered with Pope Benedict in Assisi. They had come together to recall, twenty-five years later, ‘the event of Assisi’, as it has become known, when Pope John Paul II had joined with 71 representatives of other non-Christian religions as well as with other Christian leaders, including the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie.

The purpose of the gathering was to pray that the gift of peace would embrace the whole world. In the Pope’s view, peace was the result of prayer and the religions, notwithstanding their differences, are called through prayer to make their contribution to the birth of a world that is more human, more just and more fraternal. Later that year in December, reflecting on the year past, Pope John Paul II called the event “a visible illustration, a concrete example, a catechesis, intelligible to all,” of interreligious dialogue. As he insisted at the time, it was never an exercise in minimizing religious differences or negotiating a religious consensus.

The choice of Assisi as the venue for this multi-faith prayer service was, of course, inspired by the meeting during a truce of the Fifth Crusade between Francis of Assisi and Sultan Malik al-Kamil at the port of Damietta in Egypt early in September, 1219. It seems that they spent about three days in conversation, strong and devout Muslim meeting strong and devout Catholic. Some paint Francis as a pacifist ecumenist who rejected the crusades, thought negatively about Islam and was partly engaged in the pursuit of martyrdom. Recent historical research by Muslim and Christian scholars paints a more nuanced picture.

There is little doubt that Francis would not have been impressed by the rampant brutality of the crusader soldiers. But it is impossible to say that he was opposed to the crusades as such, though he was opposed to the battle on the 29th August because he thought that the crusaders would be defeated – which they were. The sultan, with a strong belief in God and service, then offered a truce, perhaps inspired by the Qur’anic text, “Do thou incline towards peace, and trust in God; for He is the One who heareth and knoweth (all things). Should they (your enemies) intend to deceive thee, verily God suffices thee; He it is that hath strengthened thee with his aid and with (the company of) the believers (Q 8, 61-62)”. The truce made the meeting with Francis possible.

Francis and the Sultan, by Arnoldo Zocchi, 1909.

Sultan al-Kamil, nephew of the brilliant Kurdish general known in the West as Saladin, ruled Egypt from 1218 – 1238 during the Fifth and Sixth Crusades. Whilst some Muslims see him as a weak leader, Islamic history sees him as a good and moral person and a man of honour, who, however, paid for his principles. According to the Islamic scholar, Fareed Munir, his brother Al-Mu’azzam bitterly opposed his many offers of peace to the Christians. When during the Sixth Crusade he ceded Jerusalem to the crusaders, Muslims reacted with fury.

It is very clear that Francis went on his peace mission with the dominant intention to missionize the Muslims, believing that Christianity was the best faith to bring peace to the Muslims. Believing that all human beings needed Christ for salvation, Francis confronted the sultan and his fellow Muslims with the necessity of conversion. Both men came away from the dialogue wiser and more knowledgeable.

What are the lessons for today? Firstly, it would seem that during the extended conversations, Francis learned about the Islamic faith from Sultan Malik al-Kamil with both men desiring peace more than war. It seems that Francis grew beyond the Western prejudices of the time which saw Islam as a religion of the sword. He came away with a new perspective on his own faith and a new appreciation of Muslims and the Islamic faith. Muslim scholars detect in Francis’ subsequent writings echoes and resonances of his encounter with Islamic practices and phrases. Muslims began to be included in his world view. Both the Sultan and Francis had crossed the threshold of each other’s ignorance.

Secondly, it is a reminder that in our globalizing and multicultural world to be religious is to be interreligious, and that religious leaders at all levels have important social cohesion responsibilities in our civil society. After 9/11 they are under greater scrutiny and accountability. Thirdly, it is a reminder that interreligious activity needs to be based on truth and justice and in the quest for global and regional peace and for social cohesion in our nation.

But interfaith activity, if it is to be true to its calling, needs to appreciate that it is based upon religious freedom which is being challenged in many parts of the world. I want to focus now on our report for the Australian Human Rights Commission entitled Freedom of Religion and Belief in the 21st century Australia, published in March 2011.

Cover of 2011 Freedom of Religion and Belief in 21st Century

Freedom of Religion and Belief in 21 Century Australia

In the 2033 submissions made to our project, there were revealed three fundamental stances representing an enormous breadth and range of voices. A very strongly felt view among many was that the present situation regarding freedom of religion and the management of religious affairs in Australia was working quite satisfactorily. They wanted the status quo even though the minority groups, especially the Jews, Muslims and Sikhs, protested about the many racist attacks and discrimination incidents they had suffered.

First Stance: Australia as Christian

This stance, very strong in evangelical Christian communities, argues that Australia has historically been, remains so today and ought remain so into the foreseeable future a Christian country, reflected in our public ethos and institutions, our social practices, our vocational structures and our core legal system.

FamilyVoice Australia argued that “Australia is a nation with a Christian heritage and Christianity remains the majority religion today. It is appropriate that the major Christian feasts – Christmas, Easter and the weekly Sunday – continue to be marked by society as a whole. There is no need to attempt to treat the holy days of other minority religions on the same basis. To do so would be inappropriate”(Bouma, Cahill, Dellal & Zwartz 2011: 23). Many submissions pointed to the preamble of the Australian Constitution and the reference to ‘Almighty God’ which was interpreted as a Christian God.

Associated with this was the general feeling amongst religious leaders that the migration changes have been too rapid and too diverse. Multiculturalism, whilst well-intentioned, is seen as a threat to Christianity with too much deference, even appeasement, given to religious minorities. Within this stance, with some there is a fear, if not hatred, for Islam, its burgeoning birthrates and its creating of ghettos of fundamentalism even though in Australia there is nothing remotely close to a ghetto. Other Christians rejected the position that all religious paths are equally valid in the eyes of the state.

Second Stance: Australia as Secularist

The secularist voice has always been strong in Australian society. This time, it expressed concern about the growth of political religion in Australia, the rise of religious lobby groups and their influence on political parties and the perceived attempt to re-Christianize the nation. The secularists want freedom from religion. Other concerns were tax exemptions and subsidies and the outsourcing of welfare, health and educational services to religious organizations, especially when they involved discriminatory practices or alleged missionizing in their service delivery.

Of course, some submissions were extremely anti-religious in the spirit of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Others felt that religion should remain privatized and the secularist voice be the only appropriate public voice. Also questioned were religious leaders having any particular expertise in questions of morality since secular views are more rational and logical. However, some such as the Humanist Society of Queensland felt that “Religion and Humanism should be understood as different systems of belief”.

Third Stance: Australia as Multifaith

The stance that Australia is a multicultural and multifaith country was expressed by the minority faiths and by mainstream organizations, including mainstream Christian organizations. Accommodations needed to be made for different religious practices, interreligious understanding and education were critical and the interfaith movement was an important new development.

Our overall conclusion was that “the accommodation of genuine religious differences has not become easier. Religious leaders have a key role to play, through both example and teaching. The context is made more complex by the internal diversity of religious groups and voices as well as by media coverage. The roles of government and legislation are not clear for the various groups seeking protection of their rights and redress for injuries. The Australian Human Rights Commission needs to continue to monitor issues of freedom of religion and belief, including non-belief” (Bouma, Cahill, Dellal & Zwartz 2011: 83).

Other issues which arose during the project included:

  1. whether religious adoption agencies are able to refuse child adoption to gay or lesbian couples – this exemption has been refused in recent UK legislation
  2. whether religiously committed owners of hotels, apartments and other accommodation outlets are able to refuse their rooms to be used by gay or lesbian couples
  3. whether Muslim women wearing the full burqa are able to give court evidence whilst still wearing their face cover
  4. whether Sikh men can wear their kirpans, especially in venues where there are security restrictions e.g. cricket grounds
  5. local popular opposition to the building of non-Christian, especially Muslim, schools and places of worship
  6. anti-Jewish billboards placed alongside major urban roads
  7. the issue of cyber-racism and hate websites – how does one deal with such websites such virtual museums with their extremely skewed versions of religious history when sourced from overseas?
  8. the campaign from selected medical circles who are opposed to male circumcision on health grounds of pain caused to the young male baby
  9. the use of the Christian cross and other Christian symbols on official insignia as inappropriate in a multifaith society e.g. the cross on the tomb of the unknown soldier
  10. the use of the Christian Our Father to begin each Parliamentary day instead of a rotational prayer system that gives a regular opportunity to each faith
  11. the use of immigration laws to disallow the entry of religious monks, nuns and other religious workers into the country, even on a temporary basis

Critical Issues

There are several key issues that are now confronting the Australian nation:

(a) The first issue is: what is a religion? The Church of Scientology? Paganism? Should we move away from philosophical/theological definitions and consider more empirically grounded criteria such as the number of places of worship? Or should the definition be expanded to worldviews or lifeworlds and thus include Enlightenment humanism or secularism?

(b) To what extent should religious and civil and criminal law intersect in the Australian context, including in quasi judicial settings such as dispute resolution contexts? The recent controversy over the killing practices of Indonesian abattoirs is related to the religious slaughtering of animals according to Islamic law.

(c) The third issue is: How does a state prevent religious extremism, especially religiously inspired terrorism? Australia has worked assiduously since the Bali bombings in a whole range of policies and programs, not least the community policing strategy of Australian police forces, especially in Victoria.

(d) Lastly, what are the limitations to be placed on ‘reasonable accommodation’ when legislation is in conflict with religious beliefs and practices? Does the state have the right to enforce gender equality with Catholic, Christian Orthodox and Orthodox Jewish in the ordaining priests and rabbis? Does the state have the right to enforce employment justice with regard to gay persons?

The Australian case of religious diversity is interesting because of Australia’s very high multicultural profile, its various religious and ethnic diasporas, the stability of its democratic system and the recent repositioning of its religion-state separation. It suggests that a moderate position in the separation of religion and state is the appropriate course of action because the encouragement of religious moderation is the key strategy. Aggressive secularism and aggressive majoritarianism are inimical to such a strategy in perhaps encouraging violent responses.

The managing and regulating of ethnic and religious diversity has taken on a new urgency; it has to be a committed process by both the state and faith communities themselves who need to recognize the new exigencies based on dialogue and education. As Hans Kung has said, what is needed is religiosity with a foundation but without fundamentalism; religiosity with religious identity but without exclusivity; religiosity with certainty of truth, but without fanaticism.

Shantilal Somaiya

The 1986 Assisi event has had a ripple effect. The King of Morocco went home and held a multifaith service in the Catholic cathedral in Rabat. And the Venerable Edo Yamada went back, and an annual multi-faith peace service is held on or close to Hiroshima Day. And the Vatican opened up relations with the Hindus, especially through the Somaiya Institute in Mumbai attached to the University of Bombay. Its founder and funder, Shantilal Somaiya, a very devout Hindu, would die tragically in Melbourne at the Alfred Hospital early in January 2010 following his collapse after the opening ceremony of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. In his memory, I want to conclude with a short Hindu prayer:

Loving Father, perfect teacher, patient guide in these troubled times;
Sitting with you, the perfect One, I take the influence of your company
To teach me the way of reconciliation, wisdom and harmony.
I see you, the embodiment of all solutions for the world and myself at this time.
Touch my heart and my conscience daily, that all I do
Will work towards your goal of perfection and peace for all people.

Source: Professor Desmond Cahill, OAM.

Educated in Australia and Italy, Des Cahill, Professor of Intercultural Studies at RMIT University, has been a world leading researcher and teacher in the areas of immigrant, cross-cultural and international studies for more than three decades.

Prof. Desmond Cahill

Since the events of September 11th 2001, he has played a major role in researching and bringing together the various faith communities in Australia and across the world through his research and community activities. He currently chairs the Australian chapter of Religions for Peace International, the world’s largest interfaith organization, and represents Australia on the executive committee of the Religions for Peace Asia – in October 2008, he was elected its Deputy Moderator by the Governing Board representing the 18 member nations including Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Japan and the two Koreas. He is a member of the Australian Partnership of Religious Organizations (APRO) and of the Victoria Police Multifaith Advisory Council.

In 2006, he led Melbourne’s successful bid, in competition against Delhi and Singapore, to host the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 3rd – 9th December 2009, the world’s largest interfaith gathering. As a consequence, he has been made an Ambassador for Club Melbourne, a group of 100 leading scientists and academics, to promote the image of Melbourne around the world.

In the 2010 Queen’s Birthday Honours List, he was awarded the Order of the Medal of Australia for “services to Intercultural Education and to the Interfaith Movement”. Professor Cahill is Chair, Religions for Peace Australia.

Photo Credits: Commonweal Magazine; K.J. Somaiya College of Engineering