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Interfaith Forum lifts the tone of religious dialogue in NZ

By Julia Stuart

Religious ‘tolerance’ is out and ‘respect’ for other faiths is much to be preferred, according to participants at the Fourth Interfaith Forum in Hamilton in late February. One Buddhist described tolerance as a ‘low virtue’ and something you did with toothache. Respect was far more positive and personal, she said.

In an atmosphere of goodwill and inclusiveness, the Forum heard from representatives of major world faiths and also from the self-proclaimed ‘persecuted minority’ of the Exclusive Brethren. All had the opportunity to outline the benefits their faith community offer New Zealand society.

In a mix of free-flowing discussion (particularly at the preliminary women’s sessions) and formality (especially in the Governor General’s challenge), the 140 participants worked through issues such as ways for majority and minority faiths to interact, comparative religious education, and media relations. The high point of the two-day event was the presentation of the latest version of the National Statement on Religious Diversity.

Public feedback generated by the second Draft of the Statement was summarized by Professor Paul Morris.

“Issues of religious rights, the religious nature of our country and our religious responsibilities are all too rarely debated in our country and this [consultation] became the opportunity to do so,” Paul said.

There was wide general support for the Statement and almost all of its content at the Forum. There was some misunderstanding about its status, purpose and context, however.

Vigorous discussion following the presentation drew out further issues. These included the need for faith communities to engage with local government, the need to recognise that interfaith dialogue is the norm for young people, that teaching about religions must be part of the educational curriculum and that an awful lot of people – including members of faith communities – were totally ignorant of the religious diversity dialogue.

“I was really excited by what I’ve experienced,” said Rev Anne Stephenson, recently retired from Dargaville Methodist parish. “It was great that everyone got the chance to be heard, including the Exclusive Brethren and the Destiny Church people.”

“With all the bad news I hear every day, I’ve often wondered how society manages to hold together,’ said New Plymouth presbyter Alan Upson. “Today I’ve discovered one of the unseen glues – the willingness of strangers to make love real.”

The Diversity Statement is still not finalized, though the revised statement as presented at the meeting was endorsed as the basis for further dialogue.

As race relations commissioner Joris de Bres said in summarizing the Forum, it has “lifted the game” in interfaith dialogue. “I haven’t seen anywhere else this level of engagement,” he commented. “Good things take time.”