An interfaith council was established in Auckland in 1986, and, following the furore over Salman Rushdie’s allegedly anti-Muslim novel The satanic verses, another was set up in Wellington two years later. In response to the attack on the Twin Towers in New York in 2001, the Abrahamic Interfaith Group (of Christians, Muslims and Jews) was set up in Dunedin, and other groups were later formed throughout the country. In 2003 the first National Interfaith Forum (NIF) took place at Parliament in Wellington, and annually thereafter in different cities.
There are also a number of specific groups such as the Council of Christians and Jews, established in 1997 as the umbrella organisation for regional groups, and the Council of Christians and Muslims New Zealand, which began in Auckland in 1997.
Diversity Action Programme
Following the 2004 desecration of Jewish graves in Wellington, the Human Rights Commission (HRC) established the Diversity Action Programme in 2005. As part of the programme, the HRC facilitated Te Korowai Whakapono, the New Zealand Interfaith Network, and held an annual Diversity Action Forum (DAF). This included a religious-diversity forum bringing together people of different faiths, policy-makers and other interested parties. It has given rise to publications on subjects such as religious diversity, religion in schools, and religion and the media. The DAF, NIF and interfaith groups received support from local government, and in the early 2000s Auckland City Council had an interfaith project to foster relations within and between religious communities.
Groups in mainstream churches
A number of mainstream churches have addressed the issue of religious diversity. The Presbyterian Church discussed relations with other faiths in 2002 and Christian–Muslim relations specifically in 2004. In 2009 the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference established a Committee for Interfaith Relations to network with other interfaith groups, provide education on religious diversity for the Catholic community and liaise with the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.
A grave matter
In August 2004, 95 headstones were toppled at the Jewish cemetery at Makara, near Wellington, and the cemetery's chapel was gutted by fire. The desecration was condemned by the Reverend John McCaul of the Wellington Council of Christians and Jews. Parliament passed the following motion: ‘That this House … expresses its unequivocal condemnation of anti-Semitism, violence directed against Jews and Jewish religious and cultural institutions, and all forms of racial and ethnic persecution, and discrimination.’ 1
Asia-Pacific Regional Interfaith Dialogue
New Zealand has been a co-sponsor, along with Australia, the Philippines and Indonesia, of the Asia-Pacific Regional Interfaith Dialogue. Since 2004 these dialogues have brought together religious leaders from 15 countries in South-East Asia and the Pacific to learn about interfaith developments in the region and successful programmes for peacemaking, fostering social cohesion and combatting religious extremism. The Alliance of Civilizations (AOC) is a UN development that began in 2005. A regional AOC meeting was held in Auckland in 2007. New Zealand has produced an AOC implementation plan that includes interfaith and religious diversity education initiatives.
Protecting religious diversity
Under New Zealand law, and international agreements that New Zealand has signed up to, all New Zealanders have the explicit right of freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief without interference, and the right to express religion and belief in worship, observance, teaching and practice. It is illegal to discriminate based on religious or ethical belief, or against minorities. New Zealand has a well-developed system of human rights with established complaint and mediation procedures and a record of court decisions upholding these rights, including religious rights. This human-rights regime has fostered the development of religious diversity.