New Zealand offers a model of religious tolerance for the rest of the world, according to former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, now head of the United Nations Development Programme.

“Our world badly needs such models. On so many days now when I see the news headlines I often think how fortunate we are,” she said in Wellington last month.

Ms Clark was opening the new Religious Diversity Centre, which she will be patron of.

Ms Clark said the world badly needed voices of reason and tolerance and people willing to build dialogue and respect across faiths and beliefs. She thought New Zealand could show the way.

She said the role of faith-based actors had special significance in those parts of the world where governance structures were weak and the state could not give access to basic services and usual services.

Several weeks earlier, interfaith groups from all over New Zealand met in Auckland for the eleventh National Interfaith Forum. The main speaker was United States Episcopalian priest Victor Kazanjian.

Rev. Kazanjian spoke about the way “Perspectives shape our Lives”. We all have our perspectives, our lenses with which we see our world, he said. Among those which define our way of thinking are our upbringing, family ties, and our spiritual or secular beliefs.

When we stick too closely to what we see or want to see, we focus on one narrow perspective. However, every community has its beliefs, traditions and practices and if we can build bridges to other traditions and practices, we are able to embrace a beautiful diversity.

Differences should be seen as a promise, not a problem. The smallest of minority groups should be able to be heard and they should have the chance to be part of a vibrant, diverse community.

Professor Peter Lineham of Auckland said interfaith and global peace movements had been supported under previous governments, but the present Government had retreated from those local and global dialogues.

However, the fact that 50 per cent of all Aucklanders under the age of 50 were not born in New Zealand made interreligious dialogue more important than ever.

“It is not enough to eat each other’s food and watch each other’s dances,” he said. The migrant communities in New Zealand are more concerned about the dominant secular philosophy in this country, and how it will affect their culture, their lives and the lives of their children.

Professor Lineham warned that the costs would be high if no real efforts were made to bring these differing groups of people together.

Dr Anwar Ghani, president of the Waikato Muslim Community, spoke about how Muslim people seek understanding locally. The number of Muslims in New Zealand has increased from 6000 to 40,000 over the past 30 years, but their infrastructure is still the same. Prejudice and Islamophobia often make it impossible for Muslim immigrants and refugees to find a job, let alone a suitable job, even though many are highly qualified.

Islamophobia has its roots in foreign groups that carry out politics by treating their religion as an ideology. This aberration has to be overcome so that Muslims can feel that they are Muslims of New Zealand rather than just Muslims in New Zealand.

The forum heard that the Religious Diversity Centre should promote research, education and empathy among different religions and faiths and bring New Zealanders one step nearer to peace and understanding.

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