Story: Ethnic and religious intolerance

Page 7. Religious intolerance

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The major examples of religious intolerance in New Zealand involved hostility between Catholics and Protestants during the 19th century and the first part of the 20th century. At Ōkārito on the West Coast in 1865, and in Christchurch and Timaru in 1879, there were fisticuffs between Irish Catholics and Protestants.

Protestant Political Association

Antagonism towards Catholics intensified during the First World War and lasted through the 1920s. Catholics, most of whom were of Irish descent, were thought to be ambivalent about the war because of Britain’s refusal to give lreland ‘home rule’. A Baptist minister, Howard Leslie Elliot, formed the Protestant Political Association (PPA) in 1917, and in 1919 he claimed the organisation had 200,000 members. Elliot held strong anti-Catholic views. He argued that the Catholic Church was responsible for the First World War and that Catholics dominated the public service. His allegation that the Post Office authorities, under postmaster general and Catholic Sir Joseph Ward, were responsible for stopping PPA publications from being distributed led to a Royal Commission. The commission found no truth in the allegations. The antagonism between Elliot, the PPA and Catholics was not helped in this period by the equally strong views held by James Kelly, the editor of the Catholic publication The Tablet.

Bishop Liston’s trial

Another public clash came when Catholic Bishop James Michael Liston was prosecuted in 1922 for sedition after a St Patrick’s Day speech in Auckland. Liston had been vocal on Irish independence and had voiced his concern at the bigotry which led to seminarians and brothers being conscripted in 1917. He was acquitted after a two-day trial by an all-Protestant jury – although they found him guilty of a ‘grave indiscretion’.

Later 20th century

Despite the anti-Labour politics of Elliot and others, a Labour government, with strong Catholic links, was elected in 1935. The antagonism between some Protestants and Catholics continued. At a popular level there was verbal abuse hurled between Protestant and Catholic schoolchildren, and for much of the 20th century Catholic schools were excluded from school sporting competitions in Dunedin and Christchurch. But the separation of state and religious organisations, and the growing secularisation of the New Zealand population, eased religious tension. In the 2006 census 45% of New Zealanders stated that they had no religion, objected to stating a religious adherence or did not indicate any adherence. Moreover, religious diversity was growing and 168,000 New Zealanders were part of non-Christian religious communities.

In the early 21st century there was little obvious religious tension. There were some incidents directed at Muslim communities at the time of the attacks on the US on September 11 2001, but these were minor compared to anti-Islamic politics in other countries. Individual Muslim New Zealanders experienced occasional verbal and physical attacks by those who told them they had no right to be in New Zealand. Some of those experiencing this intolerance were Muslim women wearing hijab or headscarves which identified them as Muslim. The 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings, in which 50 people were killed, were a shocking break with the long-term trend towards greater tolerance.

The Human Rights Commission’s Statement on religious diversity (2007) helped identify the principles of religious tolerance. It included a commitment by the State to treat all faith communities and those who do not belong to any religion equally before the law and in the provision of public services. It also recognised that religious diversity was increasing in New Zealand and that Government and faith communities need to develop and sustain positive relationships with one another. The statement was rewritten in 2018 to reaffirm the importance of religious diversity.

How to cite this page:

Paul Spoonley, 'Ethnic and religious intolerance - Religious intolerance', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 March 2019)

Story by Paul Spoonley, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 7 Jun 2018