The Religious Leaders Forum 2021

The Religious Leaders Forum was hosted by the Religious Diversity Centre and met on Wednesday, 10 February 2021.

Two topics were on the agenda:
1. The experiences of the Baha’i, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh communities under the pressures of Covid-19 were shared.
2. The second topic was the Report of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the 15 March 2019 terrorist attack on the Christchurch mosques and its Recommendations.

New Ways of Doing Things!

Under lockdown everyone found new ways of working together, new ways of keeping in touch with people who were isolated or in need of pastoral care, new ways of sharing worship, group meditation and children’s activities on-line. New connections were made with people and communities in other parts of the world, New Zealanders sharing in worship taking place on the other side of the world, sharing in different cultures and languages, people in other countries sharing worship services in New Zealand. 

And some are continuing these new practices and developing them further. Services on-line continue to be available to people who cannot or do not wish to attend in person, leaders and experts in other parts of the world are invited to share in discussions and teaching on-line, communities here, communities there, are in touch and supporting one another. 

When the usual sharing of meals was not possible for Muslims during the month of Ramadan one community hired a restaurant to give out food. Hindu temples, Sikh gurdwaras and marae were hailed by the media as they took on the task of providing food and shelter to the many who were without.

Gatherings on-line have been appreciated, but people have found they do not have the full value of the face-to-face encounter. People were keen after lockdown to return to the community provided by their religious community. However, many meetings – more than before lockdown – are now held on-line, to cut down travel and save time. Some are interspersing on-line with in person gatherings or meetings.

Restrictions proved difficult – small numbers, less than ten, at funerals, visiting the ill and dying not possible, sharing the sacrament, mass or communion, priests not able to attend burials, confusion over chaplains being acknowledged as essential workers or not, and leaders not being able to respond to pastoral needs. Priests brought to NZ for six months forced by the closure of borders to stay over two years away from their families, and the expense involved preventing bringing in others to take their place.

In order to share the New Zealand experience with an international study it was agreed that the clear, clean, compassionate communication of Government, hand in hand with experts in Health and Science, in their daily reports to the ‘team of five million’ gained the trust of the population and their commitment to follow directions. Geography and history play their part in New Zealand’s experience of the pandemic: New Zealand is in an enviable position surrounded by a very large moat of ocean; no shared borders. Maori communities, remembering the deadly effect of the 1918 influenza pandemic on their people, took precautions to keep their people safe, particularly in the rural areas.

‘Religious Communities and Ethnic Communities’ 

Discussion of the Recommendations of the Royal Commission’s Report on the Inquiry into the Terrorist Attack on the Christchurch Mosques led the Leaders to decide to write to the Hon Andrew Little, the Lead Minister for the Government’s response to the Report – with copies to the Minister of Diversity, Inclusion and Ethnic Communities, and the Prime Minister.  The Recommendations of the Report focus on the urgent work of building social cohesion and inclusion at all levels of New Zealand society.

But the Leaders were concerned to discuss with the Government the fact that ‘religion’ is subsumed under culture or ethnicity throughout the Report. From their letter:

The Religious Leaders recognise the vital importance of ethnic identification for communities. The complex intersectional relationship of ethnicity to religion is equally important. Neither is reducible to the other, nor can engagement with religious communities be assumed by focussing on ethnic groups. Religious communities consist of Tangata Whenua, Tagata Pasifika, and many New Zealand born Tangata Tiriti of diverse origins as well as the migrants of more recent years.

The Religious Leaders acknowledge the Royal Commission’s urgent call to build greater social cohesion in Aotearoa New Zealand and call on the Minister, and the Government in general, to recognise the essential role that religious communities have played and continue to play in building such social cohesion.

Religious communities, inter-religious and interfaith networks generate strong cross-ethnic bridging relationships that are vital to the country’s social cohesion.  These involve charity and social support and the building of stable, robust and resilient communities across religious and ethnic lines.

The Leaders called on the Minister:

  1. To ensure direct engagement with religious communities and their unique needs and concerns.
  2. To establish a religious advisory group alongside the ethnic communities’ advisory group for the implementation of the Recommendations.
  3. To establish a single government or ministerial point of contact for religious communities and their concerns.