Participants of different faiths in prayer
PERTH, 30 Oct 2009: Participants at the Fifth Regional Interfaith Dialogue released the Perth Declaration today, which focuses on building religious leaders committed to interfaith collaboration for the common good of humanity.
The declaration has 14 recommendations, including meeting the needs of marginalised youth who might be targets of radicalisation, promoting peace-making strategies found in different faiths and indigenous traditions, and for future dialogues to reflect gender and other diversity.
In his closing speech, Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Smith said given Australia’s diversity as a result of successive waves of immigration, it recognised the importance of tolerance, peace and multiculturalism.
“Even if there are many Australians who don’t identify with an organised religion, many would walk through the valley of death on hot coals to defend an individual’s freedom of religion,” he said.
New Zealand’s Ethnic Affairs Minister, Pansy Wong, said the dialogue was important and required ongoing commitment from governments around the region. “Social harmony and peace do not come naturally, we must work at it,” she said.
The governments of New Zealand and Australia are co-sponsors of the dialogue, along with the Philippines and Indonesia. The theme of this year’s dialogue, held from 28 to 30 Oct, was Future Faith Leaders: Regional Challenges and Cooperation. Fourteen countries participated in the dialogue, including Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, Singapore, Thailand, Timor-Leste and Vietnam.
AzmanDatuk Azman Amin Hassan, director-general of Malaysia’s Department of National Unity and Integration, told The Nut Graph that the declaration’s recommendations were all practical and implementable.
Azman, who headed the Malaysian delegation, said, “For example, on the issue of religious stereotyping, it happens everywhere including Malaysia, so this declaration takes steps to challenge such stereotyping.”
He added that the strategies discussed included not only changing the curriculum in the education system, but also convincing teachers to overcome their own negative stereotypes.
Azman also said that Malaysia had pushed to include building mediation and conflict resolution skills among religious leaders as one of the recommendations.
Universiti Malaya’s Associate Professor Dr Shanthi Thambiah, who spearheaded this recommendation, told The Nut Graph: “We particularly need a regional commitment to build these skills for faith leaders, who might be knowledgeable about their own religions but lack mediation skills.”
Lack of indigenous representation
There was a clear lack of indigenous representation among the 160 participants attending the dialogue. Only the New Zealand delegation included an indigenous representative, Dr Manuka Henare, who is Maori and Catholic.
John Fisher, assistant secretary at Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, told The Nut Graph: “Aboriginal participation in this dialogue was incorporated via the ‘welcome to country’ ceremony during the dialogue’s opening reception, in which an Aboriginal dance troupe performed.”
When asked, however, whether Aboriginal Australians had any input in the outcome of the Perth Declaration, The Nut Graph was told by Australian government officials that they were not classified as an organised religious group, but rather an ethnic group.
Aboriginal dance at the opening of the dialogue
Nevertheless, Shanthi said the declaration calls for more diversity in future dialogues and a respect for indigenous traditions of peace-making and conflict resolution.
Participating countries will need to report back on the implementation of all the recommendations at the Sixth Regional Interfaith Dialogue.
Shanon Shah was selected and sponsored by the Australian government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, as part of its International Media Visits Program, to cover the dialogue. Four other journalists were also selected, from Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand.
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