Addressing delegates gathered at the twenty second annual International Law and Religion symposium in the United States, Fr Brian Lucas presented examples of interfaith opportunities that impact social stability.
Gathered at the International Center for Law and Religious Studies, Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah from 4-6 October 2015, Fr Lucas, General Secretary of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, discussed two examples relevant within an Australian and global context; Islam extremism and same sex marriage.
‘Challenges include the difficulty of identifying authorities to negotiate with in dialogue,’ Fr Lucas told delegates that included 90 leading scholars, jurists, and political and civil society leaders from 40 countries.
Fr Lucas briefly outlined the multicultural nature of Australian society and some of the complexities and challenges facing inter-religious co-operation in the pursuit of religious freedom.
‘Since first European settlement in 1788, Australia has welcomed people from many nations,’ Fr Lucas said.
Today, ‘the profile of Australia’s religious communities reflects varying patterns of migration’.
‘The changes in recent years with respect to the inter-religious demographics has been particularly noticeable with the increased numbers of people from Islamic background migrating to Australia,’ he added.
‘Originally many Muslim migrants came to Australia following civil disruption in Lebanon, but in more recent years there have been a number from Afghanistan and Iraq. The Islamic community has grown from a figure of 281,600 (1.5%) in 2001 to a figure of 476,291 (2.2%) in 2011 and it is expected to be higher again in 2016.’
‘The more visible presence of Muslims has led to public disquiet in some places but this must be kept in perspective,’ Fr Lucas pointed out.
‘The current tensions that exist in the Middle East have been only modestly replicated in Australia,’ he added.
‘Media commentary is often as much a source of community polarisation as a reflection of it,’ he said.
‘There are claims by some Muslim groups that they are discriminated against, for example, by local government authorities who refuse planning permission for mosques. There is a legitimate claim for freedom of worship on one hand, with fear and resentment on the other, compounded by legitimate planning issues relating to neighbourhood disruption, parking, and sensible land use. Strong emotions often handicap reasoned dialogue.’
Fr Lucas explained that ‘one of the main areas where there is a present need, as well as an opportunity, for interfaith cooperation and dialogue, is the public discussion on Commonwealth Government legislation with respect to same sex marriage. This is important in the context of the preservation of human rights and religious freedom’.
‘A point of common interest, however, even among those who hold sincere views in favour of, or opposed to same-sex marriage, is the right to freedom of religion. Many advocates of same-sex marriage are quite opposed to any concessions to the religious convictions of those with another opinion.’
‘The second major challenge that is always present in any attempt to engage in the public debate on an interfaith basis is the lack of structural integrity. By this I mean, the difficulty of determining who should be the appropriate representative. This leads to a reluctance in many faith communities for an individual to purport to speak on behalf of other members of that community.’
‘There are clear advantages in interfaith cooperation. The obvious one is the ability of a group to influence government policy making by demonstrating that the particular issue is held by a diverse group of the Australian community. Organising this is difficult.’
‘In understanding religious freedom, one has to be mindful of the importance of respecting minority positions without falling victim to the risk of the tyranny of the minority.’
‘We also need to be careful of using words like “tolerating” minority positions which can be patronising and fail to do justice to the legitimate beliefs of particular groups.’
‘A sense of perspective and the need for the proverbial “give and take” is the only way in which a diverse community can legitimately respect minority perspectives but at the same time accommodate those minority perspectives within a broad social policy perspective.’
‘There is within the Australian context scope for greater cooperation across faith communities but at the present time particularly with the tensions arising in the Middle East, the structural methodology for achieving formal interfaith dialogue is challenging.’
Fr Lucas concluded that one can easily lament that more could be done, and should be done, but ‘we can rejoice that there is a sensitivity to religious freedom within the overwhelmingly secular culture of Australia that can inform public policy. The concepts of fairness and respect are foundational for the practical achievement of particular initiatives’.
Other keynote speakers from Australia were Michael Quinlan, Dean, School of Law Sydney, The University of Notre Dame Australia, Tim Wilson, Australian Human Rights Commissioner and Sister Catherine Jones, Chair of the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Committee for Interfaith Relations.
Also speaking at the conference from the South Pacific region were the Hon Delilah Gore MP, Papua New Guinea’s Minister for Religion, Youth and Community Development and the Samoan Attorney General, Hon Ming Leung Wai.
This year’s symposium centred on the theme ‘Religion, Law and Social Stability’. Workshops and keynote sessions took place on ‘religion and social tensions’, religion, rule of law and social stability’, and ‘religious freedom and social stability’.
Religion continues to be a major factor in conflict, peacemaking, and the establishment of, or disruption to, the rule of law throughout the world. During this year’s Symposium delegates were invited to explore the relationships and tensions between religion, law, and social stability. Delegates were asked to consider to what extent religion and religious freedom can play a helpful role in resolving social and political conflict?
Further discussions took place about how religion and religious extremism can be related to violence, and what role can or should religious organisations play in society?
How can they contribute to building more just, peaceful, and stable communities, and how should the law address religious freedom claims?
During the opening session on Sunday 4 October, Keynote addresses were delivered by Dr. Gunnar Stålsett, Moderator of the European Council of Religious Leaders and International President, World Council of Religions for Peace, and Professor David Little, currently a research fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs.