Religious diversity is now a reality in many New Zealand neighbourhoods. According to the Pew Research Centre we are the world’s 19th most religiously diverse nation. Auckland may be more diverse than Sydney or London. The challenge we face is to embrace this diversity as a gift rather than seeing it as a threat.
In recognition of this the Religious Diversity Centre was launched in the Grand Hall at Parliament on 30th March.
The newly established Diversity Centre is to be a national centre of educational research excellence dedicated to fostering religious understanding among all New Zealanders.
It will publish the results of research carried out on its behalf, provide training in religious diversity, and contribute expert advice for policymakers.
It will also promote co-operation and friendship between communities. Representatives of great religious traditions were present at the opening, including Methodist President Rev Tovia Aumua. Former prime minister and head of the United Nations Development Programme Helen Clark is the Diversity Centre’s patron. She addressed the gathering and officially launched the new venture.
Chair of the Centre’s Board of Trustees Jocelyn Armstrong welcomed those present and commended the centre as an idea whose time had come. Attorney-General Chris Finlayson expressed confidence that the Centre would make a strong contribution to understanding and interpreting our new reality.
Quoting from Jonathan Sachs, he said that a test of faith is whether I can make space for others. Can we see the image of God in those who are different?
The guest speaker was Victoria University Professor of Religious Studies Paul Morris. Paul expressed the hope that the Centre would be a resource for social cohesion and harmony. “Religious diversity needs to be reflected in national identity,” he said. Paul went on to suggest that it was important that the values and commitments of religious diversity should be brought into every aspect of kiwi life.
Helen Clark stated that New Zealand could be a model to other nations that struggle with accommodating religious diversity. She insisted that “terrorism violates the basic principles of every faith”. What is said in the mosque on Friday, the synagogue on Saturday and the church on Sunday matters. So in her work with the United Nations Development Programme, she advocates development programmes that are sensitive to different faiths.
In her lively address she called for greater understanding of the causes of extremism. Visiting Mali in the course of her work, she learnt that there were many negative drivers for young people such as financial incentives to join jihadists, trafficking of people, drugs and guns. Authentic development will provide and support positive options.