Australian Embassy
The Philippines

SP090520- HOM Remarks Interfaith Partners' Forum

Remarks by Ambassador Rod Smith
Interfaith Partners’ Forum
20 May 2009, Marco Polo Hotel

SGIDU partners, partners in other interfaith activities, prospective partners, friends – good evening.

I am honoured to be speaking to such a large gathering of community partners here at our Interfaith Forum.

It is a testament to the importance of grassroots interfaith work that 76 representatives from 66 organisations are attending this Forum.

I trust that you have all found the Forum both useful and stimulating, and that you have all participated as actively as possible. The success of this meeting depends on your input and your views:

- about how our partnerships have worked well, or in some cases, not worked so well;
- about where our processes could benefit from improvement;
- about whether there have been difficulties engaging in some sectors, or with some communities, and how these difficulties might be addressed.

Australia is a strong supporter of interfaith dialogue as a means to bridge the differences and divisions between people. Both our Prime Minister and Foreign Minister are committed to supporting interfaith dialogue at a number of levels to build support for tolerance, respect, and pluralism.

I want to emphasize that this is not a rhetorical commitment or an academic exercise; it is in many senses an embodiment of our own community norms and national values. Let me elaborate on this point by describing Australia’s own experience with cultural and religious diversity and the work we have been doing in the Southeast Asian region on Interfaith Dialogue.

Australia, as those of you who have visited will know, is a highly multicultural society. Some 42 percent of all Australians were either born or had one parent born overseas, in one of more than 200 countries.

Seven in 10 Australians call themselves Christian. It may surprise you that Buddhism is the second largest, and the fastest growing, religion in Australia. We also have a thriving and diverse Muslim community of more than 100 nationalities.

Australia is also a secular society – religion plays no role in government policy; there is a strict separation of church and state; but everyone is free to worship as they please. As part of its policy to encourage freedom of religion and worship, the Government provides funding assistance to schools of all faiths.

Because of our long experience promoting harmony in a diverse society, we are very conscious of the importance of supporting international efforts to spread messages of interfaith dialogue and understanding, especially in Southeast Asia, a region close to Australia which is a melting pot of many of the world's great religions.

In a world where violence is increasingly used to divide communities, interfaith dialogue is critical because it focuses not on the issues or values that divide us, but on those that we share; those that bring us together.

Australia and Indonesia co-founded the Regional Interfaith Dialogue process in 2004, and along with the Philippines, Australia has been a strong supporter of the process, which has had meetings in Yogyakarta in 2004, Cebu in 2006, New Zealand in 2007, and Phnom Penh in 2008. Australia will host the next Regional Interfaith Dialogue meeting in Perth in late 2009.

Australia works with other partners in promoting Youth Interfaith Forums and is also a supporter of the Alliance of Civilisations, a global interfaith initiative led by Turkey and Spain.

We have also organised regular exchanges between Australian Muslim community leaders and their counterparts in Indonesia, Malaysia, southern Thailand, and of course the Philippines. Some of you would have met Dr Jamal Rifi and Imam Sabri Samson when they visited.

In line with Australia’s efforts to promote social harmony and foster peace-building, Australia is a strong supporter of interfaith initiatives at the grassroots level where local communities and stakeholders can participate and benefit directly.

Initiatives to promote tolerance and respect among faiths and cultures at the grassroots level are essential. This is where people face the everyday challenges of life, including challenges posed by the interaction of different faiths and cultures.

The Strengthening Grassroots Interfaith Dialogue and Understanding – or SGIDU - Program, which was developed by the Australian Embassy in Manila in 2006, supports peace-building activities at the grassroots by community groups and non-government organisations in Mindanao and Metro Manila.

Since its inception, SGIDU has provided a total of over Php26 million to 47 grassroots projects that focus on strengthening interfaith and intercultural understanding, and promoting peace-building and anti-violence messages.

SGIDU has supported a wide range of activities including:
- inter and intra-faith training and dialogue sessions;
- youth peace camps;
- training workshops in leadership skills, peace-building, advocacy and conflict resolution;
- development of peace modules for school curricula;
- sporting and cultural events that encourage community participation, cohesion and harmony; and
- TV and radio programs on interfaith and peace-building.

To date, SGIDU has forged partnerships with 38 grassroots partner organisations – many of whom are represented here tonight – that represent religious and community leaders, youth, women, communities that include indigenous groups, academic institutions, and internally-displaced families and individuals.

These SGIDU partnerships have achieved some impressive successes, including:
- the formation of local community networks such as the Young Advocates for Peace, Young Peace Circles, the Imam-Pastor-Priests’ Forum of Mindanao, and the National Imam-Priests Dialogue Forum;
- the training of local leaders with knowledge and skills in peace building and conflict resolution; and
- the promotion of awareness and understanding among tri-people communities on the benefits of peace, tolerance, respect, harmony, and cooperation.

These activities have directly benefited more than 10,000 people and have helped many individuals to become effective peace-builders and advocates for their organisations, schools and communities. These achievements are a testament to the success and sustainability of many SGIDU projects.

Apart from SGIDU activities, the Embassy has supported a wide range of partners whose initiatives contain substantial interfaith components, including:
- the Asian Institute of Management for its one-year Bridging Leadership Fellows Program;
- the Philippine Council for Islam and Democracy for publication of the Moro Times;
- Newsbreak for its online reporting on Mindanao;
- the National Defense College of the Philippines for its Young Leaders Program in 2008; and
- The Asia Foundation and the Philippine Council on Islam and Democracy for the inaugural SE Asian Forum on Islam and Democracy.
We have also supported five peace journalism courses to promote more balanced media reporting of conflict situations, and visits to Australia by Muslim religious leaders, Muslim youth leaders and Muslim local government unit leaders, some of whom are with us here.

We believe our support for the interfaith work performed by local community groups is helping to achieve some important results and we are keen to continue supporting worthy proposals that address the challenges posed by factors such as ignorance, prejudice, discrimination and conflict.

Let me stress that in this process we have no wish to impose Australian views or solutions. The challenges faced by local communities can be resolved only by local communities themselves – by applying local solutions.

We are happy to support those efforts, and one of the most striking features of our involvement is the strength and determination of civil society throughout the region to work for peace and greater understanding and to overcome divisions caused by conflict, or differences of faith or culture.

Too often societies are stereotyped by media reporting that conveys only images of violence and strife. We see that increasingly in the case of Pakistan. But such negative impressions distort and hide the more positive (but less newsworthy) reality that, even in countries that face serious social divisions, the overwhelming majority of people are concerned primarily with simple issues – finding a job, providing for their families, and educating their children.

These fundamental human needs cannot ultimately be fully satisfied without a background of security and community peace and harmony in which economic development, education, investment and jobs can flourish. Interfaith dialogue is an important means of achieving and maintaining community peace and harmony. Effective genuine interfaith dialogue cannot be imposed; it can only be truly meaningful if it is embraced and taken forward at the grassroots level. That is why the contribution you make is so important.

Thank you for your attention. The Embassy values its relationship with each of you, and I look forward to continuing the good work on which we have collaborated so successfully to date. Please enjoy the evening.