The 3rd International Interfaith Conference in Sydney Parramatta took place on 26th and 30th of May 2004 where seventeen thinkers, religious and community leaders gave papers and presentations to an audience of more than 400 people in total.
The conference theme “What is our Future Together: Muslims, Christians and Jews” was the question that organisers – Affinity Intercultural Foundation, the Columban Centre for Christian-Muslim Relations, Community Relations Commission of NSW Government, the Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission of the Parramatta Diocese, the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, Al-Ghazali Centre (and supported by Muslim Women Association, Muslim Women National Network, Strathfield Uniting Church) – wanted to explore across three sessions covered over two days.
The conference made a significant contribution to the interfaith initiative not only in NSW but also in VIC with the conference being repeated in Melbourne . A first time attendee Masoda Ghiasy said ” I really enjoyed it and I feel so strongly that this is a great step towards a better society .” A sentiment that was reflected by Margaret Clark who remarked ” Important, balanced and diverse. I learnt a lot on each faith group. An excellent experience all round – both days! ”
Session-1 Abraham Lecture
The first session took place on Wednesday 26 th of May at the Riverside Theatre, Parramatta . Stefan Kerkyasharian, Chairman – Community Relations Commission, openned the conference with the first address. Stefan has highlighted the imperative need for the interfaith dialogue in the multifaith reality of our society not only in Sydney but also in Australia . Stressing the importance State Government gives to community harmony, he said “I am happy to state that the NSW is the only state in Australia, and arguably the world, which has a crisis management plan ready to be implemented if an event threathening community harmony occurs .”
The ‘Abraham’ lecture was delivered by the Deputy General of Foreign Affairs in Turkey , Professor Ibrahim Ozdemir. His theme was, “Cultural Diversity in an era of Globalisation”. Professor Ibrahim explained that this was the third international conference he had attended so far in 2004. The first was in Canada and the one before this was in France . He began by emphasizing the importance of dialogue and cooperation amongst cultures and the need to secure their co-existence. In order to illustrate how conflicts occur when we all mean the same thing, he nerrated a story from the Muslim tradition.
” Four persons, a Persian, an Arab, a Turk and a Greek were travelling together. They were given a set amount of money by a benefactor. The Persian said he would buy ‘angur’ with it. The Arab said he would buy ‘inab’. While the Turk and the Greek were for buying ‘uzum’ and ‘astaphil’ respectively. Now all these words mean one and the same thing – ‘grapes’. But owing to their ignorance of each other’s languages they fancied they each wanted to buy something different. Accordingly, a violent quarrel arose between them. At last a wise man who knew all their languages came up and explained to them that they were all wishing for the same thing. ”
The moral of the story, Professor Ibrahim pointed out, is that it is up to those who are involved in interfaith dialogue to teach the language of co-existence in the multicultural world of today. He noted from the start that Australia and Canada are ” treasures for the rest of the world in the handling of multiculturalism…members of the Council of Europe are still not certain how to deal with this new phenomenon .”
He gave an example of multi-cultural and multi-religious co-existence from his own tradition. Since the 14 th century the Ottoman nation has allowed different religious groups and minorities the right to establish their own educational, religious and judicial institutions. Non-Turkish and non-Muslim citizens ” were never regarded as strangers and never underestimated. They were always welcomed and valued for their humanity and talents. The best-known example of this reception is the traditionally related and very meaningful rumour that Sultan Selim III rose to his feet in respect whenever his tanbur teacher Izak, a Jewish musician who was considered at the time the greatest performer of the tanbur in its traditional style, came before his presence .”
Professor Ozdemir particularly singled out the role of education in the task of breaking down prejudices and promoting harmony. He pointed out that in Turkey , for example, ” we have been rewriting our text books and eliminating and erasing from them statements that may lead to misunderstanding and prejudices .” Finally, he warned against the dangers of equating fundamentalist lines in religions as the norm: ” It would be as grave a mistake to see Osama bin Laden as an authentic representative of Islam as to consider James Kopp, the alleged killer of an abortion provider in Buffalo, N.Y., a typical Christian or Baruch Goldstein, who shot 29 worshipers in the Hebron mosque in 1994 and died in the attack, a true martyr of Israel. ”
Reverend Professor James Haire, the Director of the Australian Centre for Spirituality and Culture, and former President of the Uniting Church , gave an impressive response to Prof Ozdemir’s address.
” I have never heard a bureaucrat and policy maker speak so well. It is hard to find a senior public servant make any sense and think outside of the square ” remarked Irfan Yusuf on reflection of Prof Ozdemir’s Abraham Lecture.
The Abraham Lecture evening was coloured by two performances, the first by the amazingly beautiful and haunting sounds of the Gazi Husrev Beg Choir who sang two Islamic songs and the other by the touching soprano voice of Ayse Goknur singing the Amazing Grace.
Session 2 – Exploration Workshops
The next part of the Conference took place on Sunday 30 th of May at North Parramatta Campus of the University of Western Sydney beginning with three Exploration Workshops running in parallel. The workshops explored the following subject matters.
• Workshop A: Overcoming Misunderstandings: Crusades, Jihad and Zionism
• Workshop B: Is the Clash of Civilisations Inevitable or Preventable?
• Workshop C: Sacred and Secular – The Role of Religions in the Public Space.
These workshops were chaired by Christian, Muslim and Jewish scholars respectively. Recommendations were made which were presented to the afternoon assembly in the auditorium.
The chairperson for Workshop A was Patty Fawkner sgs, director Uniya Jusiut Social Justice Centre. Peta Pellach from Shalom Institute gave a historical perspective of Zionism and what it means to Jewish people. She said that she is a Zionist herself as most Jews are, however for her zionism means ” the right to have a safe country for the Jewish people.”
Giovanni Farquer, executive director for the Commission of Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations for the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney, covered the Crusades from a Christian perspective. Sr Farquer explained the rationale of the Crusades to liberate Jerrusalem and mentioned that they are part of the history and are over from a Christian perspective. ” Crusades should not define our relationships now ” she remarked.
Afroz Ali, the President of Al-Ghazali Centre for Islamic Sciences and Human Development gave a through coverage of Jihad from the perspective of the Qur’an and how Muslims understood the concept throughout history. He remarked ” the word jihad appears in more than thirty times in the Qur’an with certain derivatives of the word and only four times in relations to warfare .” He also gave a broad definition of Jihad as “the endeavour of striving for goodness ” supporting his argument from the verses of the Qur’an.
The chairperson for Workshop B was Faikah Behardien, the Vice-President of Muslim Women’s National Network of Australia, quoted from Edward Said and opened the discussion by asking whether the issue we face is a ” clash of ignorance ” or a ” clash of civilisations “.
Stephen Rothman, the President of NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, was the first speaker. Mr Rothman focused on the view that all mankind ultimately comes from the same roots – Adam and Eve. He remarked ” the three monotheistic faiths have existed side by side for at least 1400 years and that in fact the greatest Jewish philosophers flourished when Jews were under the Islamic rule. A time known in Jewish circles as the Golden Age of Judaism .”
Mr Rothman however underlined that “man has the capacity to do good or bad. ” So even though the answer for the question in his perspective was that ” the clash of civilisations is not inevitable “, it was however probable from his view. And as he commented it was this answer that worried him ” for destruction is easier done than construction .”
The second speaker was Rev Patrick McInerny from Columban Centre for Christian-Muslim Relations. Rev McInerny admitted that ” conflicts have occurred and are occurring. ” However he strongly put forward that ” authentic religion is not and will not be the cause of such incidences, though people have unfortunately used it for their own personal interests and gains. ” Rev McInerny instead brought to attention the transition the whole world is going through due to globalisation. He stated ” transition is never easy and that the world is not really witnessing a clash of civilisations but rather the labour pains of giving birth to a new world civilisation .”
As the final speaker of Workshop B, Professor Ibrahim Ozdemir, the Deputy General Director for Foreign Affairs of Turkey couldn’t help commenting that he ” would have not made a twenty-six hour journey if he thought the clash of civilsations was inevitable.” As a response to Rev Mcinerny he wanted people to focus on what creative approaches religion can provide for man during this period of great transition the world is living. He emphasised that ” good intentions, optimism and hard work is required to discover common grounds and live together as fellow human beings. ” Ozdemir finished his talk by recalling that ” even though Abel has always been the one to be acclaimed by people, many are instead following Cain and his actions. ”
Workshop C was chaired by Ilona Lee, President Shalom Institute, and focused on the role or religion in public space. This workshop was particularly relevant today as the question of religion vs state is often raised. The three speakers tried to answer this question as representors of their faith traditions.
The Judaic view was presented by Dr Debbie Weissmen, Director Kerem Institute Jerusalem . She remarked ” any state whether secular or otherwise should not by pass the important role of religion within the public domain. Religious opinions should be voiced out in the public sphere and secular communities. ” She talked about keeping the prophetic traditions and claimed that many religious personalities like Martin Luther King, Mahatma Ghandi, mother Theresa Nelson Mandela and many more dedicated their public and private lives and were true advocates of peace and justice.
Similarly Rev John Henderson, General Secretary National Council of Churches, addressed the issue of religion through an Australian lens and context. He stated ” just as any non- religious individuals have rights to chose not be religious, so should a religious person have similar rights to practise their personal faith and belief .” He commended the government and showed appreciation of our current system claiming they are ‘vicegerents’ of God who keep the law and order in society, but stressed the never ending need of society for religious peoples and religion.
” Human beings are naturally religious deeply linked with human understanding of the natural ” Rev Henderson maintained. He stressed that religion is emerging as a potent force which preaches moral lessons and guidance. He recognised that religion is now a ‘suspect’ in the public space and it was not only Islam that was under ‘suspect’ but also Christianity and Judaism.
Maha Abdo, Manager United Muslim Women Association, presented the Islamic perspective on the issue. She raised the obvious debate that the topic was particularly applicable and relevant to the Muslims who are constantly plunged into this debate of the Sacred and the Secular. She remarked ” the public through the media discourse constantly view Muslims and Islam as ‘terrorising religion'” . She spoke of the examples where the public realm or secular governments have outlawed certain religious practices siting the example of France . ” Within our libertarian democracy the secular government of Australia and the Australians should allow for and accept the private individual choice to practise religion in the public sphere ” she concluded.
When the panel was opened to the audience for comments and questions, most agreed that religion should play a continuing role in society and that practical measures and initiatives should be taken to maintain the peaceful tolerance between our diverse communities.
The Question & Answer session was quite rigorous, the highlight of which was an impassioned plea from a Christian woman for followers of all religions to realise and accept that at the core of all faiths is love. She said ” there is no point going out thinking you say and believe the right thing when you have never bothered to show and act out your love for fellow human beings .”
Session 3 – Interfaith in Action
The recommendations from the morning workshops were presented to the afternoon assembly in the auditorium. It was at this stage that Bishop Kevin Manning, Parramatta Diocese, presented a paper entitled, ” How we move forward in Interfaith Dialogue.” Bishop Manning said ” In moving forward in inter-faith dialogue, I believe that those who are committed to it must foster within themselves three dispositions, each beginning with the letter ‘P’. I refer to patience, preparation and prayer…that is understanding takes time and patience…I mean preparedness for setbacks!.. Nothing of what we desire will come solely from our own efforts but is a gift from God.. .”
Bishop Manning then spoke of the challenges we face in inter-faith dialogue: ” I believe that inter-faith dialogue will stagnate if it does not become community based…We must work very hard to ensure that extremists, whether they be Christian, Muslim or Jewish, do not hijack religion in order to legitimise a political or ideological agenda…The third challenge is for us to cooperate in the diminishment and removal of injustice everywhere in the world.The fourth challenge is to collaborate in shaping public policy in our country. ”
Bishop Manning concluded his address with a prayer: ” We, according to our distinctive traditions, may follow the example of Abraham, as seekers of God’s will, living lives of faith, hoping in the promises made to us by God and, in this time of pilgrimage, may we grow in friendship, learn in dialogue, work together generously, and live in peace together and with all men and women. ”
The Conference then offered some Real-Life Interfaith Experiences from two projects that have been in operation over the past twelve months. The first of the two projects was the Encounters Project, where six groups composed of Christians and Muslims with four Muslims and four Christians in each group met for a period of six months on a monthly basis. A video presentation of the meetings was played which was followed by short descriptions of personal experiences from Margaret Roberts and Nursen Ozger. A member of the audience remarked ” Panel of Encounters Project sounds especially appealing. Young people like this represent hope for the future – an excellent day. Thank you”
The second project was the Journey of Promise Project, where ten Muslims, ten Christians and ten Jews lived and shared the religious experiences of one another for a period of one week. A video presentation was followed by short reflections by Kirrily McDermott, Gary Samowitz and Usman Badar on the fraternal bonding and transformation that took place during the Project.
The Conference drew to a close with a Round-Table Discussion reflecting on the theme: ” What is our future together: Muslims, Christians, and Jews? ” The chairperson, author Paul Collins, posed many challenging questions to a panel of six – Prof Ibrahim Ozdemir, Mehmet Ozalp, Prof Michael Horsburgh, Giovanni Farquer rsj, Stephen Rothman and Ilona Lee. T he overall response was that together we must address the issues of our age in a spirit of openness to one another and have the courage to challenge the difficulties we will inevitably face. Only in this way will we be a source of inspiration to the rest of the community and ultimately to the global village.
The sentiment of the audience towards the two days of conference was reflected by Jan Babington, ” I just say thank you for a great day on Sunday. I enjoyed every minute of it and did appreciate meeting so many interesting people. Thank you for providing this opportunity ”
Lunch time: Hearty Sandwiches served by members of the Affinity Intercultural Foundation
Coffee break: It was a great opportunity for participants to mingle, meet new people, and discuss the conference proceedings.