The Australian government will soon release the report of the recent Religious Freedom Review, along with its initial response. In late 2017, following the national debate on ‘same sex marriage’, the Turnbull government commissioned Philip Ruddock and an expert panel to conduct the Review to investigate its implications for religious freedom. The government selected the panel wisely, and we expect their recommendations to be fair, well thought through and broadly in line with international conventions on freedom of religion and belief.
During the review process the Lutheran Church of Australia made a submission which you can read on the LCA website. In a private face to face session the LCA had the opportunity to discuss its submission with Philip Ruddock and co-panellist Fr Frank Brennan.
Right now we are waiting to see the recommendations of the Review report and the government’s response. Whatever happens, we can be sure that our politicians, the media and the public at large will engage in considerable debate and many things will be said, both founded and unfounded, extreme and moderate. There are voices seeking to eliminate faith from the public discourse. Therefore this is a moment for us as a church body, and as individual Christians, to speak and act fairly, patiently, and with wisdom.
Australian Christians have long lived in a society which has lacked deep, genuine sympathy for faith and those who hold it. Prior to Federation it largely tolerated the practice of religion rather than encouraged it. Significant politicians, intellectuals and writers (for example, Henry Parkes, Alfred Deakin and Patrick White) strongly opposed creedal Christian faith. Despite this the faith has endured, as it has for thousands of years. While we now know, all too painfully, of abuses in institutions, including some run by churches, the practice of the faith itself has always made an enormous contribution to the health and well-being of our society, our families and our citizens. The strength of our social fabric today relies on the secure underpinnings provided by Christianity over the decades.
Much popular culture, however, continues to rail against the churches and their creedal faith in God. It’s now become the fashion. The historical amnesia of the 21st century creates potential for a wave of hostility towards Christianity and the church. These times will test our resolve to respond in gentleness and with the spirit of Christ. By continuing to show love to those who call us names and disparage our faith, we will witness to Christ and contribute to the maintenance of a civil and tolerant society. The strength of faith, and its firm foundation in Christ, enables us to remain calm and remember that in relative terms, we aren’t doing it that tough. When we see how tough life is for our partner churches in SE Asia, for instance, we may be less willing to cast ourselves as victims of persecution. As a society, while we can expect opposition, we are not yet at that stage.
If you want to know more about religious freedom around the world, you might like to look at the 2018 Annual Report of The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). It lists 16 Countries of Particular Concern (CPCs), which engage in or tolerate severe religious freedom violations that are ‘systematic, ongoing and egregious’. A further 12 countries were found to engage in or tolerate severe religious freedom violations but do not meet the criteria to be labelled CPCs. The report also named a number of non-state actors as Entities of Particular Concern (EPCs), including Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Taliban in Afghanistan and al-Shabaab in Somalia.
The most severe abuses documented in the USCIRF report include genocide and other mass atrocities, killings, enslavement, rape, imprisonment, forced displacement, forced conversions, intimidation, harassment, property destruction, marginalisation of women and bans on children participating in religious activities or education.
If you haven’t heard of USCIRF, you may have heard of organisations such as Open Doors and Barnabas Fund, which publicise the plight of Christians enduring persecution and find ways to help them. Some of us will already be supporting them.
As we pray for continued freedom to live out our faith in Australia and New Zealand, we also give thanks for our many blessings, and remember people of faith elsewhere in the world who can only dream of the safety, security and freedom we still have.
We give thanks
- for the dedicated and comprehensive work of the expert panel and its attempts to find the right balance where the right to religious freedom and the right to non-discriminatory treatment in particular come into conflict;
- for the privileges and freedoms which Christians currently have in Australia and New Zealand to act as salt and light in the wider community;
- for work being done to uncover abuses of people on the basis of their religion and to pressure leaders in countries where serious abuses are occurring to try to stop them.
We ask forgiveness
- for those times we have expressed our faith in ways that were prideful, contemptuous and hypocritical and thus brought shame on the name of Christ;
- for our failure to act as good neighbours, especially to people in the worldly realm who are not like us and with whom we have disagreements;
- for our part in any abuses or violence perpetrated by those who have falsely claimed the name of Christ or church privilege.
- for wisdom and foresight for the Australian MPs currently considering the expert panel’s report and preparing their response;
- for a way forward that protects wide freedoms of religious association and expression in Australia;
- for a spirit of joyful neighbourliness, especially towards those in society with whom we differ in significant ways or with whom we have disagreements;
- for real and lasting change in places and countries in which Christians and people of other faiths experience persecution at the hands of the authorities, religious authorities and their fellow citizens;
- for effective ways of addressing conflicts in which people have divided along religious lines, especially that deeper underlying causes can be addressed such as real or perceived scarcity;
- for Christians suffering because of their commitment to obeying God rather than man and that we might learn something of their courage, integrity and perseverance;
- that Christians everywhere will use what freedoms they have with wisdom and grace;
- for patience as we look forward to the day when every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.