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Diverse religions

by Paul Morris

New Zealand is home to a range of religious groups, including Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Sikhs and Jews, as well as Christians. Since the late 20th century New Zealanders’ religious affiliations have become increasingly diverse, as a wider range of immigrants have settled in the country.

Religious diversity in New Zealand

‘Religious diversity’ refers to the presence of different religious communities within a society. New Zealand is home to Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Sikhs, Jews and a number of newer religious movements. Most New Zealanders value this diversity, but some have more negative attitudes – for example, that religious differences threaten social unity.

Origins of New Zealand’s religions

New Zealand’s pattern of religious diversity developed out of the religious cultures brought by the communities that migrated to the country. Māori brought religious customs and practices from Polynesia. European missionaries and settlers brought varieties of British Protestantism and French Catholicism. Anglicans, Methodists and Presbyterians shaped the structure, values and traditions of the new society. Almost all Māori adopted forms of Christianity, so New Zealand was regarded as a Christian nation.

Effect of Christian traditions

Since the early days of European settlement tiny Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and Sikh faith groups have existed alongside the Christian majority. This unified religious identity has been a significant factor in educational, moral, social and cultural policies and debates. In the 21st century New Zealand’s Christian traditions remained evident in the 2007 decision to retain a Christian prayer in Parliament, in support for the theistic national anthem, and in the practice of swearing on the Bible in court.


From the 1970s there was a dramatic decline in church attendance and affiliation in New Zealand. In the 2013 census 42% of New Zealanders described themselves as having no religion. The proportion was higher in larger cities and among the young. This figure is about double that in the USA, Britain and Australia. Fewer than 10% of those who state they have ‘no religion’ are committed atheists, and many do have spiritual interests and concerns.

My aim is true

In the 2000s the New Zealand Defence Force confronted an issue of religious diversity. It learned that the US-manufactured sights on weapons used by its troops in Afghanistan were inscribed with Biblical references. Defence Minister Wayne Mapp observed that when New Zealand soldiers were operating in Muslim countries, the references could be misconstrued. The manufacturer was instructed to remove the inscriptions from further orders of the gunsights.

Religious fundamentalism

Since the 1970s there has been a worldwide intensification of religious identity among those who remain believers. This has been reflected in New Zealand in the growth of the charismatic movement in the mainstream Christian churches, and in new evangelical and Pentecostal communities.

Impact of new migrants

Changes to immigration policy from the 1980s meant that adherents to non-Christian religions doubled in number between 1996 and 2006, and increased by another 20% between 2006 and 2013. Immigration changes have also influenced Christianity in New Zealand, with the arrival of substantial numbers of Korean Presbyterians and Methodists, Taiwanese Presbyterians, Samoan Catholics and Congregationalists, South African conservative Presbyterians, and Filipino and Tongan Catholics.

In the 2010s Christianity remained the largest single religion in New Zealand but there were also sizeable Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and Sikh communities, each made up of various ethnic and language groups with very different migrant experiences. None was represented by a single organisation. There was sometimes tension between different faith groups, resulting in complex relationships both within and between religious communities.


Hinduism is the largest religion in New Zealand other than Christianity, with almost 90,000 followers in 2013. Their numbers nearly tripled in the decade after 1996, mainly due to changes in immigration policy and political turmoil in Fiji, which led Indo-Fijians to settle in New Zealand.

The settlement of Hindus in New Zealand dates back to the arrival of a handful of Lascars (Indian seamen) and sepoys (Indian soldiers) in the early 19th century. The first small communities from Gujarat and the Punjab arrived in the 1890s. Until the 1980s almost all Hindu migrants came from Gujarat. Later they arrived from all over India and from Sri Lanka, Malaysia and South Africa.

Ring a bell?

In 1836 the missionary William Colenso saw Māori women near Whangārei using a broken bronze bell to boil potatoes. The inscription around the rim read ‘Muhayideen Baksh’s ship’s bell’ in very old Tamil script. This discovery has led to speculation that Tamil-speaking Hindus may have visited New Zealand hundreds of years ago. However, historians have said that the bell does not prove early Tamil contact with New Zealand.

What is Hinduism?

Hinduism is the name given to a wide variety of beliefs and practices that reflect the history of the many regional and local traditions of India. Many Hindus are vegetarians. Hindu rituals take place at home and in the temple. The Hindu festive calendar includes Holi (India’s spring harvest festival), Navratri (a nine-night celebration of the goddess Shakti) and Diwali (the festival of lights). Diwali has become part of the civic calendar in Auckland and Wellington, with town-hall celebrations open to the public and including Indian foods, dancing and music. There are many medical, legal and commercial professionals among the Hindu community.

Auckland Hindu temples

Communities from different parts of India have their own temples with their own traditions. In the 2010s Auckland had a Tamil temple, the New Zealand Thirumurugan Temple, in Ōtāhuhu, and the Swaminarayan temple in Avondale for followers of a 19th-century Indian saint. Other Auckland Hindu organisations included the Ramakrishna Mission, Chinmaya Mission, Sathya Sai Organisation, Art of Living Foundation, Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, Sewa International and Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation.

Language links

Dr Guna Magesan is an environmental scientist who moved to New Zealand from Tamil Nadu, India, in 1988. As the national coordinator of the Hindu Council of New Zealand, he organised an annual tree-planting programme for the Indian community, and youth festivals to build links between Indian and other New Zealanders. In 2007 Magesan told the World Hindu Conference in India that there are many similarities between Sanskrit, the classical language of India, and Māori. ‘There are at least 185 Sanskrit and other Indian language words similar to the Maori language. For example, “tama” means boy, “e tu” means stand and “mana” means pride or self respect.’ 1

Wellington and other temples

In the early 21st century Wellington was home to Bharat Bhavan, a mainly Gujarati temple and cultural complex in Kilbirnie, and the Kurinji Kumaran Temple in Newlands. There were also International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKON) centres in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, and a temple and farm in Kumeu, West Auckland, for a community of Indians and converts to Hare Krishna.

Hindu organisations

The Hindu Council of New Zealand (HCNZ) was formed in the mid-1990s and is affiliated to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a global Hindu organisation. HCNZ has hosted annual New Zealand Hindu conferences since 2007. It has also established the Hindu Heritage Centre, Hindu Social Service Foundation, Hindu Elders Foundation and Hindu Youth New Zealand, and runs youth and family camps. In 2010 HCNZ launched Hindu Organisations, Temples and Associations (HOTA), a representative body for Hindu groups in New Zealand.

HCNZ has been involved in a number of media campaigns. In 2008 the Council protested against the representation of the Hindu religion in the film The love guru. In 2011 it set up Hindu Media Watch to analyse bias and stereotyping in the portrayal of Hindus in the New Zealand media.



Buddhism is New Zealand’s second-largest non-Christian religion, with more than 58,400 followers (1.5% of the population) in 2013. 65% were migrants from the Buddhist cultures of Asia, while almost all of the rest, nearly 20,000, had chosen to become Buddhists.

What is Buddhism?

Buddhists follow the teachings of the Buddha, who lived in the Indian sub-continent between the sixth and fourth century BC. Through meditation, ethical living and other practices, Buddhists aim to end the cycle of suffering and rebirth and achieve nirvana (a perfectly peaceful state of mind).

Parliamentary Buddhism

In July 2010 a copy of the Dhammapada, a collection of traditional Buddhist teachings, was given to the New Zealand Parliament. The book was presented by Buddhist monks and nuns including Ajahn Tiradhammo, abbot of Bodhinyanarama monastery in Stokes Valley, Tibetan monk Geshe Wangchen and Bhante Jinalankara, abbot at Tawa’s Dhamma Gavesi Meditation Centre. The teachings were translated into English by Ajahn Munindo, a Buddhist abbot born in Te Awamutu. Practising Buddhist Parliamentarians included Labour MP Darien Fenton.

Origins of New Zealand Buddhism

The first Buddhists in New Zealand were Chinese diggers in the Otago goldfields in the 1860s. Their numbers were small and the 1926 census, the first to include Buddhism, recorded only 169. In the 1970s travel to Asian countries and visits by Buddhist teachers sparked an interest in the religious traditions of Asia, and significant numbers of New Zealanders adopted Buddhist practices and teachings.

Since the 1980s Asian migrants and refugees have established their varied forms of Buddhism in New Zealand. In the 2010s more than 50 groups, mostly in the Auckland region, offered different Buddhist traditions at temples, centres, monasteries and retreat centres. Many migrant communities brought priests or religious specialists from their own countries. Their temples and centres have acted as focal points for a particular ethnic community, offering language and religious instruction.

National and international groups

In 2008 the Sixth Global Conference on Buddhism brought leading teachers and scholars to Auckland under the auspices of the New Zealand Buddhist Foundation. The Buddhist Council of New Zealand, established in 2007, comprised 15 Buddhist organisations engaging with local and national government on issues of concern to Buddhist communities. These included trying to make it easier for Buddhist priests and teachers from overseas to live and work in New Zealand.

Forms of Buddhism

Theravada Buddhism

The Buddhism of Myanmar (Burma), Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Sri Lanka is known as Theravada Buddhism (meaning ‘path of the elders’). In 2003 the Auckland Khmer (Cambodian) Buddhist Association opened a temple and centre in Takanini, and others later opened in Māngere, Hamilton and Wellington. Theravadan Buddhist members of the Thai community opened temples in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

The first Sri Lankan Buddhist temple opened in Ōtāhuhu, Auckland, in 1999. It was joined by the Dhamma Gavesi Meditation Centre in Tawa, serving more than 500 families in the Wellington area. Bodhinyanarama monastery in Stokes Valley, near Wellington, was established in the mid-1980s to teach Buddhism in a monastic setting. Its affiliated centres were the Auckland Buddhist Vihara in Mt Wellington, and the Vimutti Buddhist Monastery, founded in 1980 in Bombay, South Auckland.

Mahayana Buddhism

The Buddhism of East Asia is known as Mahayana (‘the great path’). The Vietnamese Buddhist Association has its own distinctive pagoda temple, Giac Nhien, in Ōtāhuhu, Auckland. The largest Buddhist temple in New Zealand, Fo Guang Shan in East Tāmaki Heights, Auckland, opened in 2007. It was built in a Chinese style and promoted ‘humanistic Buddhism’. There was also a Fo Guang Shan centre in Christchurch and the Buddha's Light Association for younger members. Another major Auckland Chinese Buddhist temple was the Tsi Ming Temple in Greenlane.

Teaching Zen

Sensei Amala Wrightson is an Auckland-born Zen priest and teacher of a branch of Japanese Zen Buddhism. She and her husband began Zen practice after attending a workshop in Sweden in 1982. She later trained as a teacher in the US and founded the Auckland Zen Centre in 2003.

The Foundation for the Preservation of Mahayana Buddhism (FPMT) is an international organisation with more than 100 centres around the world. In New Zealand FPMT has run the Amitabha Hospice in Avondale, Auckland, since 1995. It also runs the Mahamudra Centre, a retreat centre started in the 1980s near Colville, Coromandel; the Dorje Chang Institute for Wisdom Culture in Avondale, Auckland; and the Chandrakirti meditation centre in Nelson.

Zen Buddhism

The Auckland Zen Centre was established by Amala Wrightson in 2003 to teach the Japanese Zen Buddhism tradition. It was later joined by a number of other Zen centres and the Korean Buddhist community.

Tibetan Buddhism

A third Buddhist strand is the traditions of Tibet. The best-known Tibetan Buddhist is the Dalai Lama, the Nobel peace laureate who visited New Zealand on several occasions and addressed capacity crowds in Auckland and Wellington. The first teachers of Tibetan Buddhism came to New Zealand in the 1970s and by the 2010s a number of centres promoted particular Tibetan teachings and traditions.

The Dhargyey Buddhist Centre began in Dunedin in 1984 and later opened centres in Whangārei and Christchurch. These offered teaching and practices following the Tibetan traditions of the Dalai Lama’s Gelug School, as did the Trashi Gomang Centre in Māngere, Auckland.

Diamond Way Buddhism is part of an international network of meditation centres following the Karma Kagyu traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. The Auckland group was established in 2008. There are also centres in Wellington, Golden Bay, Rangiora and Christchurch. The Compassion Buddhist Centre in Christchurch is part of the New Kadampa Tradition, as is the Bodh Gaya Centre in Wellington. The Shambhala Buddhist Meditation Centre in Auckland is part of an international organisation teaching Tibetan Buddhist meditation.

Other types of Buddhism

The Triratna Buddhist Community (formerly the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order) offered a ‘non-sectarian style of Buddhism’ at centres including the Auckland Buddhist Centre in Grey Lynn, Auckland; the Wellington Buddhist Centre; and Sundarshanaloka (Land of the Beautiful Vision), a retreat centre near Thames on the Coromandel Peninsula.

Soka Gakkai International (SGI) is part of an international Buddhist organisation originating in Japan. The New Zealand group was founded in 1975 and had around 1,500 members in 2016 .


In 2013 New Zealand was home to more than 46,100 Muslims. Three-quarters had been born overseas, with significant groups coming from the Pacific Islands, Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

Origins of New Zealand Islam

Individual Muslims have lived in New Zealand since the 19th-century gold rushes, and Gujarati Indian Muslim families settled here after 1910. However, New Zealand Muslims totalled less than 100 until after the Second World War. After the Fiji coups in 1987, 2000 and 2006 restrictions on immigration were reduced, and an influx of refugees from conflict zones saw Muslim numbers almost double between 2001 and 2013, to become over 1% of the New Zealand population.

What is Islam?

Muslims follow the religion of Islam and believe in one god, Allah, whose revelations were given to the prophet Muhammad (born about 570 CE) in the holy book of the Qur’an (or Koran). Moses, David and Jesus are also important Muslim prophets. Devout Muslims pray five times a day. Most Muslims, in New Zealand and worldwide, belong to the Sunni branch of the faith. There are also small groups, especially from Iran and Afghanistan, who follow the Shia branch.

Each local community is centred on a mosque (place of worship), and provides prayer facilities, particularly for Friday communal prayers (salat al-jummah), religious instruction, marriages, funerals and communal festivities. Major cities and towns have shops that provide halal meat (slaughtered in a religiously prescribed fashion) and other products. Increasing numbers of New Zealand Muslims make pilgrimages (hajj) to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, and there is a quarterly Muslim periodical, Al Mujaddid.

Brotherly love

In April 2010 a Māori-language translation of the Qur’an, the Muslim holy scriptures, was presented to the Māori King Tūheitia at a marae near Hamilton. The translation was made by Shakil Monir, a Pakistani Muslim who spent 20 years teaching himself Māori from textbooks. It included the following verse, 49:11:

Tuturu, he tuakana, teina nga tangata whakapono ki a ratou ano; no reira me hohou i te rongo ki waenganui o o koutou tuakana, teina, me te wehi ki a Allah, kia tohungia koutou.

(Surely all believers are brothers. So make peace between brothers, and fear Allah that mercy may be shown to you.)1

Muslim organisations

In 1979 a national umbrella organisation was established, the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand (FIANZ). The National Islamic Women’s Council and the Ulama Council, which gives advice on religious matters, are affiliated to FIANZ. There are two Islamic schools in Auckland: Al Madinah School and Zayed College for Girls. A number of Muslim communities, such as the Mount Roskill Islamic Centre (Masjid Umar) in Auckland, are not affiliated to FIANZ.

Profile of Muslims in New Zealand

In the 21st century Muslims have become more prominent in New Zealand life. Eid al-Fitr, the feast at the end of the annual fasting month of Ramadan, is celebrated in Parliament. An Islamic Awareness Week is held annually and mosques around the country host open days. The profile of Muslims was also affected by the 11 September 2001 suicide bombings in New York and Washington, and, closer to home, the Bali bombings of 2002 and 2005. The imprisonment and trial of Algerian politician Ahmad Zaoui under counter-terrorism laws also brought the ‘war on terror’ home to New Zealanders.

In 2002 Ashraf Choudhary became the first Muslim MP.

Problems faced by Muslims

New Zealand Muslims have experienced religious and racial abuse and assault, and damage to property, including an arson attack on the Hamilton mosque in 1998. In 2019, 51 Muslims were killed and 49 wounded when a terrorist gunman attacked two Christchurch mosques. Muslims have also experienced difficulties at work, especially over the wearing of the hijab (headscarf) and provision for prayers. Schools such as Hagley Community College in Christchurch have prayer facilities for Muslim students.

In 1980 Muslims objected to screening of the television documentary Death of a princess, about the execution of a Saudi princess for adultery. In 2006 they objected to the republication of anti-Muslim cartoons originally published in Denmark. A meeting hosted by the Human Rights Commission agreed on a joint statement undertaking not to publish the cartoons in New Zealand.



In 2013 New Zealand was home to more than 19,000 Sikhs, a religious and ethnic community based in the Indian state of Punjab. The population had more than doubled between 2006 and 2013, and increased almost sevenfold since the 1990s. The New Zealand Sikh Society was established in 1964. Sikh numbers were very small before the changes to immigration policy in the 1980s. The first Sikh gurudwara (temple) opened in Hamilton in 1997. Seven more gurudwaras were set up in the Auckland area, and others in Tauranga, Te Puke, Hastings, Palmerston North and Wellington. and in 2009 the first South Island centre opened, in Christchurch.

What is the Sikh religion?

Sikhs acknowledge a lineage of 10 gurus or teachers, beginning with Guru Nanak (1469–1539). In 1708 the 10th guru, Guru Gobind Singh, nominated the Adi Granth (the Sikh sacred scriptures) as his successor, thereafter known as Guru Granth Sahib or ‘living guru’. The Guru Granth Sahib is a central feature in each gurudwara. Sikhs celebrate the Punjabi New Year, Vaisakhi.

Sikh men traditionally wear a dastaar (turban) and have a full beard. Sikhs subscribe to the five Ks:

  • kachch (wearing full undergarments, indicating self-discipline)
  • kara (wearing an iron bangle on the right wrist, referring to dharma or order)
  • kes (unshaved and uncut hair symbolising saintliness, dating back to Guru Nanak)
  • kanga (carrying a hair comb)
  • kirpan (a small dagger, symbol of self-reliance).

Come on in

The Sikh place of worship, the gurudwara (literally guru’s door), traditionally has doors opening in all four directions, to symbolise that all are welcome. Inside a gurudwara shoes must be removed and the head covered. Every gurudwara provides langar, a free communal meal. The gurudwara in Wellington, opened in 1997, was the southernmost in the world until a gurudwara opened in Christchurch in 2009.

Problems in New Zealand

Their traditional clothing and artefacts promote Sikh social cohesion and identity, but also differentiate them from other New Zealanders and can cause concern. For example, wearing the kirpan has been an issue at schools and on domestic flights. In 2008 a Sikh policeman in Nelson became the first to include a turban as part of his uniform. However, in 2009 the Manurewa Cosmopolitan Club refused to admit a Sikh wearing his turban, leading to an official complaint to the Human Rights Commission. Wearing turbans can also raise health and safety issues for Sikh workers.

Sikh organisations

Sikhs are represented nationally by the Sikh Council of New Zealand (SCNZ) and the rival Supreme Sikh Council of New Zealand. Tensions have arisen when Hindu organisations have claimed to include Sikhs under a Hindu identity. In 2007 SCNZ successfully defeated attempts by the Hindu Council of New Zealand to install Guru Granth Sahib in the Hindu Heritage Centre in Māngere, South Auckland. There is a New Zealand Sikh Women's Association in Auckland and a Sikh Centre in Manukau promoting greater interaction between Sikhs and the wider New Zealand community. The association sponsors annual competitions in painting, writing and phulkari, traditional Punjabi embroidery.

Studying Sikhs

Professor Hew McLeod, originally from Feilding, was a world authority on Sikh studies. In the 1950s he became a Christian missionary near the Indian city of Amritsar, the spiritual home of the Sikh people. McLeod learned the Punjabi language and wrote highly influential books in which he overturned long-held views on the origins of the Sikh religion. He later pioneered oral-history techniques to record the history of Sikhs in New Zealand.

New Zealand Sikhs

Sikhs in New Zealand place a particular emphasis on Anzac Day commemorations, when they remember Sikh combatants at Gallipoli. They are also active in interfaith dialogue.

Prominent Sikhs include Sukhi Turner, the mayor of Dunedin from 1995 to 2004, and Kanwaljit Singh Bakshi, who became New Zealand’s first Sikh MP in 2008 when he was elected on the National Party list.


Origins of New Zealand Judaism

Jewish communities arose in Auckland and Wellington in the early years of European settlement. The first Jewish religious service was held in Auckland in 1841. These settlers were almost all Ashkenazim (European Jews). Other Jewish communities were established in Christchurch, Dunedin, Nelson, Hokitika and Timaru. By 1901 New Zealand Jews numbered about 1,600. Since then the community has grown steadily, especially with the arrival of refugees from Nazi Germany before and after the Second World War. In 2013 the figure was nearly 7,000. Recent Jewish immigrants have come mainly from the former Soviet Union, South Africa and Israel.

What is Judaism?

Jews follow the religion of Judaism, which believes that God revealed his laws and commandments to the prophet Moses on Mount Sinai in the form of the Torah. Orthodox Judaism maintains that the Torah and Jewish law should be strictly followed. Progressive Judaism places more emphasis on individual choice in religious beliefs and practice. Progressive Jews have also been more liberal on issues such as gender equality in synagogue services and the ordination of women and gay rabbis.

Wedding bells

The first Jewish wedding in New Zealand was held on 31 October 1841, when Auckland storekeeper David Nathan married Rosetta Aarons in Kororāreka (later Russell) in the Bay of Islands. The couple then returned to Auckland, where their family business, L. D. Nathan, grew to become one of New Zealand’s largest retailers.

Jewish institutions and festivals

A flourishing Jewish community needs a Jewish cemetery and burial society (chevra kadisha), ritual bathhouse (mikveh), kosher food (conforming to Jewish law), a person trained to undertake male circumcision (mohel), and ideally a rabbi (religious teacher) and a minimum of 10 for public prayer (minyan). Annual celebrations during the year include Pesach (Passover), Yom Ha'Shoah (Holocaust Day), Yom Hatzma'ut (Israel Independence Day), Rosh Hashanah (the New Year), Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), Hannukah (Festival of Lights) and Sukkot (Festival of Booths). The Sabbath (weekly day of rest) is celebrated in the synagogue (house of prayer) and in the home.

The synagogue is the focal point for collective Jewish identity in New Zealand. In the 2010s there were orthodox synagogues in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch and progressive synagogues in Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin.

Cultural mix

Beth Shalom, Auckland’s largest progressive Jewish synagogue, was the first in New Zealand to employ a full-time rabbi. In his first month in the job, US-born Ed Rosenthal received a lesson in his new country’s religious diversity. He officiated at a funeral for a Jewish New Zealander who had been married to a Māori woman. The service was strictly Jewish but the surrounding rituals and family gatherings were conducted by the widow and her children according to Māori custom.

Jews in Auckland

In the 2010s almost half of New Zealand Jews lived in Auckland. The orthodox community of Beth Israel, founded in the 1840s, had a mikveh (ritual bathhouse) and religious school, and ran a kosher delicatessen. The main synagogue was in the city, with a stiebel (prayer centre) in the eastern suburbs. Beth Shalom, the Progressive Jewish Community of Auckland, was founded in 1956 and offered services and religious education to Jewish families.

Jews elsewhere

Wellington’s orthodox community, Beth El, founded in 1843, had a mikveh and a kosher shop and offered religious classes and services. Temple Sinai, the Wellington Progressive Jewish Congregation, was founded in 1959. The Canterbury Hebrew Congregation was orthodox and worked in partnership with Chabad of Canterbury, a group offering kosher food and religious services, mainly for Jewish travellers.

Jewish social organisations

There were two integrated, co-educational Jewish schools in New Zealand – Moriah College in Wellington and Kadimah College in Auckland. Two Jewish aged care homes – Shalom Court in Auckland and the Deckson Home in Hutt Valley – offered kosher facilities. Bnai Akiva and Habonim were Jewish youth groups, each running camps and a programme in Israel for young New Zealanders.


The New Zealand Jewish community’s concerns have included anti-Semitism (prejudice against or hostility towards Jews). In 2004 Jewish graves were desecrated at a cemetery in Makara, near Wellington. In 2010 shekhita (killing meat according to Jewish law and tradition) was ruled illegal by the minister of agriculture. The Jewish community prepared to contest the decision, and the ban was not implemented. However, it raised the issue of religious freedom in the Jewish community.


What is Bahá'í?

Bahá'ís, literally ‘followers of the Glory’, follow the teachings of the 19th-century Persian prophet Bahá’ulláh (the Glory of God). His teachings included a strong emphasis on unity – of God, religion and humankind – and on the equality of men and women. The international movement is centred in Haifa, Israel, to where Bahá'ís make pilgrimage. The Bahá'í faith has no formal clergy and every adult is eligible for election to a ‘local spiritual assembly’, a group of nine or more adults. Bahá'ís follow an annual calendar with 19 months each of 19 days, with a feast to mark the beginning of every 19-day period. There are extra days of commemoration, and Naw-Ruz, the Bahá'í new year.


The Bahá'í faith in New Zealand began with Margaret Stevenson, an Aucklander, in 1912. The first local Bahá'í assembly was elected in 1926 and the first national spiritual assembly in 1957 in Henderson, West Auckland. In 2013 there were around 2,600 Bahá'ís in New Zealand. Their numbers have been reasonably stable since the 1980s.

From one to many

For 10 years the only New Zealand Bahá'í was Aucklander Margaret Stevenson. In 1912 she had rented a room to a visiting English Bahá'í, Dorothea Spinney, and learned about the faith. Until 1922 Stevenson held study groups in her home. When the Bahá'í Assembly in New Zealand was formed in 1926, she became its first secretary. She later became a member of the first national spiritual assembly of Bahá'ís of Australia and New Zealand, formed in 1934.

Bahá'ís in New Zealand

Bahá'ís have been very active in interfaith activities and since 2001 have run an annual Race Unity Speech Award for senior school students. New Zealand Bahá'ís include refugees from Iran, and the community has been active in raising awareness of discrimination against Bahá'ís around the world. In 2009 they briefed the government’s foreign affairs, defence and trade committee on the situation of Iranian Bahá'ís.

Recent and new-age religious movements

Recent spiritual movements

New Zealanders have never had an established or state religion, and have often been open to new religious developments and movements. In the late 19th and early 20th century they were disproportionately attracted to new spiritual movements and spiritualist churches and groups. These included the Theosophical Society, whose followers included Premier Harry Atkinson. Also popular were the Anthroposophical Society, the Society of Guardians, the Rosicrucians and the Order of the Golden Dawn. There were also a number of homegrown spiritual movements such as the School of Radiant Living, whose members included a youthful Edmund Hillary.

Cult or church?

The first Church of Scientology was formed in Los Angeles in 1954. The New Zealand church established in Auckland the following year is thought to have been the second in the world. The church has been the subject of controversy, with some labelling it a cult. However, in 2002 New Zealand’s Inland Revenue Department decided it was a charitable organisation dedicated to the advancement of religion, meaning that its income was tax-exempt. Scientology spokesman Mike Ferris said the decision was a ‘fantastic acknowledgment of the work we do for our parishioners and for our community’. 1


Scientology began in the US in the mid-1950s. Scientologists are followers of the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard, a former science-fiction author. The 2013 census counted 315 Scientologists in New Zealand although the Church of Scientology has claimed there are 5,000–6,000. They were the subject of a high-profile commission of inquiry in 1969 and have strong views about psychiatry and pharmaceutical interventions in cases of mental illness.


The Rastafari movement arose in Jamaica in the 1930s. Its followers worship Haile Selassie (the former emperor of Ethiopia), seek repatriation to Africa and follow a code of conduct and diet called ‘livity’. Many wear their hair in long dreadlocks and use cannabis as part of their beliefs.

Rastafarianism was first introduced to New Zealand through reggae music in the mid-1970s. It became better-known after tours of New Zealand in 1979 by Jamaican reggae star Bob Marley and black British theatre group Keskidee Aroha. Several local Rastafarian reggae bands were formed, mainly with Māori and other Polynesian members from Porirua, near Wellington, and Ponsonby, Auckland. A global Rastafari organisation, the Twelve Tribes of Israel, formed a New Zealand chapter in the mid-1980s. Rastafarianism became especially influential around Ruatōria on the East Coast, where young Māori combined Rastafarian beliefs with the local Ringatū faith.

Green Party MP Nandor Tanczos was New Zealand’s best-known Rastafarian until he retired from Parliament in 2008. In 2011 the first National Gathering of Rastafari was held in Wainuiomata, Wellington.

In 2013 New Zealand Rastafarians numbered about 1,900.

Tunnel for peace

The Unification Church was founded in 1954 by Korean evangelist Sun Myung Moon. In 1982 the Reverend Moon was jailed in the US for tax fraud. In 2006 the church’s spokesperson in New Zealand was Sir Peter Tapsell, a former Labour cabinet minister and speaker of the House. In August that year he sponsored a Unification Church federation in New Zealand and spoke at a rally with Moon’s wife. The rally claimed that religious and cross-cultural tolerance would be boosted if world leaders built a multi-billion dollar ‘peace tunnel’ across the Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska.

Asian and other new religious movements

In the 1970s and 1980s New Zealanders established new religious groups imported from Asia, Australia and Europe, and communities with a shared spiritual outlook such as Centrepoint in Auckland. New religious movements that flourished included Hare Krishnas (ISKON), Transcendental Meditation, Ananda Marga, Soka Gakkai, the Aetherius Society, the Art of Living Foundation, Brahma Kumaris, Eckankar, Landmark Education Corporation, Maitreya, Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP), Raëlians, Subud and the Unification Church (often known as the ‘Moonies’).

New-age spiritual movements

In the 1980s and 1990s groups considering themselves spiritual rather than religious saw the dawning of a new age (‘the age of Aquarius’). The emphasis of these ‘new-age’ groups was on personal transformation and experience rather than dogma, doctrine and hierarchy. Many methods were used, including channelling spirits, gemstones, meditation, reincarnation and past-life techniques, indigenous wisdom, dance, trance and visualisation. These groups were often very fluid and were characterised by workshops, seminars, one-on-one client services, or New Age noticeboards in local spiritual bookshops. New Age fairs have been held in centres around the country.

Māori goddesses

New Zealand practitioners of witchcraft sometimes incorporate Māori deities in invocations: ‘Hine-titama, goddess of the east and the air, dawn maiden, you are the mother of all and you greet us in death … Mahuika, goddess of the north, the one who gave the world fire, you warm us with your energy … Taranga, goddess of the west, who gave birth to Maui in the ocean, you keep us alive with the water of life … Papa-tuanuku, goddess of the south, who came forth from Te Po, the darkness, you are our mother earth … Hine-ahu-one, the essence of all living things, breathe with us now and energize us with your power.’2

Witchcraft and Wicca

Alongside the New Age movements, but often distinguished from them, are various forms of neo-paganism, including Wicca and witchcraft covens. Wicca is especially popular among teenagers, particularly young women, in its cyber form. It embraces both male and female deities and is grounded in the yearly cycle of nature.


Interfaith relations

Interfaith organisations

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. The first National Interfaith Forum (NIF) took place at Parliament in Wellington in 2003, and it was held 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.

    • New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, 10 August 2004, p. 14,715. Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Paul Morris, 'Diverse religions', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 June 2024)

Story by Paul Morris, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 12 July 2018