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Diversity statement expands the scope of Godzone

By Julia Stuart

Is New Zealand still a Christian country? Well, on the surface, what else could you call it?

It’s implied in our very nick-name, Godzone, and our national anthem, God defend New Zealand. The churches in our landscape, Bible in Schools, chaplains in our prisons and military institutions – all a visible Christian presence.

But things are changing. Many people now want to recognize the growing religious differences that characterize at least urban Aotearoa. With high level official backing a body has been formed to create a statement to enshrine religious freedom and tolerance as values in our public life.

The draft national statement on religious diversity is sponsored by the Race Relations Commissioner and the Human Rights Commission. The idea arose with the New Zealand multi-faith delegation to the first Asia-Pacific Dialogue on Interfaith Cooperation, which was held in Indonesia in 2004.

After they took part in discussions about regional and global conflicts over religion, the Kiwi delegation saw such a statement as a way to improve communication between government and faith communities, affirm the right to freedom of religion, and build harmonious relationships between communities.

The idea got a bit more traction in late 2005 with the debate over the Danish cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. The cartoons were reprinted in New Zealand in early 2006 and provoked a 700-strong demonstration by Auckland Muslims. Victoria University’s Religious Studies programme undertook to work on a statement and presented the first draft to the New Zealand Diversity Forum in August last year.

Feedback at that gathering led to further refinements. The preamble was expanded with references to the Treaty of Waitangi. It acknowledged the formative role Christianity played in the country’s development and stated that Christianity “continues to be an integral part of New Zealand’s culture and heritage”.

It then went out for public consultation. Responses varied widely.

The Churches’ Agency on Social Issues (with Methodist membership) supported the intention of the Statement but asked that the separation between church and state be more explicit and that the freedoms to express, change and propagate one’s belief be protected and strengthened.

Destiny Church, on the other hand, claimed the Statement was flawed and opposed both its content and concept.

During the media slow season this January, an article in Christchurch’s Press newspaper played up the disagreement among churches over the issue. “The debate on the issue has made for strange bedfellows,” wrote Ian Steward, “with an Anglican bishop siding with the atheists and the Destiny Church siding with the Catholics.”

After the latest drafting committee meeting on January 26 Vision Network New Zealand’s Glyn Carpenter was unhappy. ”References to the importance of Christianity in the preamble could be undermined or negated if it is then treated on an exactly equal basis in the guidelines,” he says. Glyn thinks Vision Network churches would regard a commitment to religious diversity as insignificant even though they might well accept that religious diversity exists.

Anglican bishop Richard Randerson, a member of the drafting group, thinks getting the Statement right is important. Neither suppression of belief, nor a bland amalgam that satisfies no one, is a viable solution, he says. “But as a church leader I feel uncomfortable leading prayers in public that have an exclusively Christian ending, thus excluding people of other faiths.”

The plan is to get Government to adopt, endorse, support or welcome the Statement so that the Prime Minister can present it at the next Asia-Pacific Dialogue at Waitangi in May.

The Diversity Statement – what’s in it?

In the six-paragraph preamble, the Diversity Statement notes the historic and contemporary importance of Christianity as well as the significant growth of other faiths.

“Christianity has played a formative role in the development of New Zealand in terms of the nation’s identity, culture, beliefs, institutions and values. It continues to be an integral part of New Zealand’s culture and heritage.

“New settlers have always been religiously diverse, but only recently have the numbers of some of their faith communities grown significantly as a result of migration from Asia, Africa and the Middle East. These communities also have a positive role to play in our society. In this context a reaffirmation of our national commitment to religious diversity is important.”

The actual guidelines offer a framework for recognition of New Zealand’s diverse faith communities and their harmonious interaction with each other, with government and other groups in society.

The first makes it clear that ‘New Zealand has no state religion’ and stresses equality before the law of believers and non-believers alike. The following seven guidelines uphold the right to

  • freedom of religion and from discrimination on religious grounds;
  • safety and security of faith communities;
  • freedom of expression and of the press
  • impartial education;
  • legitimate debate and disagreement without recourse to violence.

‘Reasonable steps’ shall be taken to 1) recognise and accommodate beliefs and religious practices in the workplace, education system and delivery of public services, 2) build positive relationships between government and faith communities; and 3) promote tolerance and understanding between the different faiths and in the community.

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