AUCKLAND, New Zealand (Catholic Online) – Support for a national statement on religious diversity that affirms that there is no state religion in New Zealand does not deny the Christian roots of the country, said nation’s Catholic and Anglican bishops.
In a May 28 joint statement issued just before the Asia-Pacific Dialogue on Interfaith Cooperation, the bishops of the two Christian churches applauded the National Statement on Religious Diversity for Aotearoa New Zealand as “both forward thinking and mindful of past foundations,” while acknowledging that some have criticized the assertion that country has no state religion.
New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark presented the statement at Waitangi in Northland, New Zealand, at the international dialogue between faith communities from 15 countries May 29-31.
The gathering was the third in an international series of meetings between faith communities from 15 countries. It follows similar meetings held since 2004 in Indonesia and the Philippines and aims to promote peace, regional security and religious tolerance and understanding, particularly between Muslim and Western countries.
Noting that such a statement is important “at a time when cultural diversity is increasing,” the Catholic and Anglican bishops said that they “cherish freedom of thought and freedom of religious expression, both for ourselves and for others.”
“This is inherent in our understanding of the Christian gospel, as a gift that is freely given, to be freely experienced and freely received in a climate of freedom itself,” the bishops wrote. “We celebrate the right to share our faith in this democracy, and we wish to reciprocate that right with other faiths.”
While noting that there is not now nor ever has been a “state religion in our land,” the bishops said that the country’s foundational document, the Treaty of Waitangi of 1840, guaranteed protection for and recognition of not only major Western religions but indigenous faiths as well.
“We wish to affirm the central role that the Christian gospel played in the founding of both the treaty itself and in the religious heritage of this nation,” they said, pointing to “the long story of Christian presence and faith sharing here from 1814 onwards.”
“We also affirm that there is no state religion in our land and affirm that the protection and recognition outlined in the treaty document are available to all without prejudice or special status,” the prelates said.
In accepting the realities of a “multicultural and diverse community here in the islands” of New Zealand, the bishops were clear in affirming the right of religious communities to “challenge the state in the name of the values, ethics and justice issues that come from a faith-based perspective.”
Ultimately, the Catholic and Anglican bishops said, “ruling authorities are also accountable to God.”
Pointing to the majority of New Zealanders who identified themselves as Christians in the 2006 national census, the bishops claimed that “far from denying our Christian heritage, we affirm it and uphold it.”
“We honor the life passion and commitment of the early missions which sought to witness to the grace and justice of the Christian gospel,” the bishops said. “We celebrate this heritage and commend this mission and its timeless message to this land we all share and love.”
The following is the National Statement on Religious Diversity:
1. The State and Religion. The State seeks to treat all faith communities and those who profess no religion equally before the law. New Zealand has no official or established religion.
2. The Right to Religion. New Zealand upholds the right to freedom of religion and belief and the right to freedom from discrimination on the grounds of religious or other belief.
3. The Right to Safety. Faith communities and their members have a right to safety and security.
4. The Right of Freedom of Expression. The right to freedom of expression and freedom of the media are vital for democracy but should be exercised with responsibility.
5. Recognition and Accommodation. Reasonable steps should be taken in educational and work environments and in the delivery of public services to recognise and accommodate diverse religious beliefs and practices.
6. Education. Schools should teach an understanding of different religious and spiritual traditions in a manner that reflects the diversity of their national and local community.
7. Religious Differences. Debate and disagreement about religious beliefs will occur but must be exercised within the rule of law and without resort to violence.
8. Cooperation and understanding. Government and faith communities have a responsibility to build and maintain positive relationships with each other, and to promote mutual respect and understanding.
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