G20 Interfaith Summit: Economic Development & Religious Freedom
Gold Coast Queensland: 16 – 18 November 2014. Griffith University.
With Eyes Wide Open.
It was a sense of contemporary interest and relative excitement that caused me to interrupt my Middle Eastern and European travels, following in the steps of St. Paul, to accept an invitation to participate in the G20 Interfaith Summit on the back of the G20 World Leader’s Conference in Brisbane 14 – 16 November 2014. What did an Interfaith Summit on Religious Freedom and Economic Development have to do with a meeting of the World’s 20 most Powerful Leaders gathered together in Brisbane to develop a framework for Economic Development?
With eyes wide open, I attended The Faith Summit. I joined people from many countries, with different backgrounds, different cultures and different beliefs to discuss a way to work together for religious freedom and social cohesion.
The Summit, opened by chair Professor Brian Adams Director of Griffith’s Centre for Interfaith and Cultural Dialogue, expected the Interfaith Summit would provide context for many issues raised at the G20 World Leaders Summit. He said, “Religion is often misunderstood or overlooked as a factor around world events but it has a major role to play from medical ethics to cross-border conflicts to macroeconomics. Our aim is to improve the understanding of faith-based perspectives and how they impact on communities, ultimately in relation to macroeconomic, and transnational decisions made by world leaders.”
Questions initiated by Prof. Adams, designed to activate the thought processes of participants included: Does faith have a constructive, problem-solving place in 21st Century societies? Should faith leaders and scholars have a seat in the strategy room? Should Freedom of Religion be protected? These and other questions were explored by Australian and International thought-leaders at the G20 Interfaith Summit on Australia’s Gold Coast in Queensland.
Keynote speakers included Dr Rachael Kohn ABC Radio National and Australian Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson, each of whom presented their perspectives on the importance of Religious Freedom. Dr Kohn highlighted the need to promote religious freedom but also touched upon the abuse within faiths, the denial of human rights for some, and the need for openness and accountability.
Commissioner Wilson saw Religious Freedom as important as it laid the foundation of all human rights in a modern liberal democracy. Freedom of free speech and respect to others of whatever religious or cultural background was critical to the wellness of society in a liberal democratic country such as Australia. Statistically, the majority of Australians have some form of faith. In 1911, 96% of Australians identified with the Christian faith, and whilst Faith has been in decline, and 21% now say they have no faith, Australia is not a secular country. He argued Australians must be free to express their faith and the State should remain Secular. The Commissioner is a strong advocate of free speech and choice of clothing. He saw choice of clothing as free speech.
The following day Katrina Swett of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom presented with the underpinning statement ‘Every human being has dignity and worth who must be honored and respected.’ She painted a picture that Religious Freedom leads to economic prosperity as it promoted safety and security. However, she emphasized those who hold religious belief and those who are secular are both in need of protection. She cited human rights breaches, such as the 18 Pakistanis on Death row for Blasphemy and the ISIL assaults on non-Muslim and Shia and Sunni Muslims, as a major issue of concern. “These are people who should be protected,” she said. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, provide for this. The Declaration, to which 179 countries are signatories, states that all people are born equal. Dr. Swett claimed those who say ‘Religion is the cause of all violence’ is false. “This claim denies fundamental truths, is cheap and intellectually dishonest.”
The connection between Religious Freedom and the Economy could not be better articulated than the experience of those living in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In a presentation by Dr Brian Grim he stated there was a direct correlation between GDP Growth and Religious Freedom. A specially convened interfaith panel from the United Arab Emirates considered the extent and impact of religious freedom in the Middle East.
At first blush one saw the UAE as a country predominantly full of Muslims, and those who lived there, as strict adherers to Islam. True, 75% are Muslims. However, as His Excellency Sheikh Nahyan of UAE University pointed out, whilst 75% are Muslims, 25% of the population is made up of Christians, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Bahai’s and other faiths.
The UAE is a society of many faiths, with a population of 9.3 million, of which 1.4 million are Emirate citizens and 7.9 million are ex pats from 290 countries.
The UAE is a remarkable story. Founded on December 2, 1971, there was no infrastructure, no services, nor health care. The mortality rate was 55 and illiteracy was over 90%. The UAE had oil money. Other countries did too, but according to Dr Yousef Al Hassan none advanced as the Emirates. This he attributed to belief in pluralism and diversity, and acceptance of all faiths. This led to a richer society and greater economic development. He said this success occurred because the UAE accepted to live with other people of different cultures and religion and to respect beliefs and values of others. No religion promotes terrorism, he said. The action of a few does not proclaim the religion for the country or ideology for which they are fighting. Universally, he saw the way forward through education and Interfaith co-operation.
H/E Sheikh Nahyan said the UAE recognized people had been created in tribes and groups so that they may know one another. By allowing people to bring their faith with them, and practice it without proselytizing, they have been able to retain their beliefs and identity, and have contributed greatly to the workforce without distraction. This global vision of allowing others to bring their faith with them, and practice it, has led to unparalleled economic growth.
Sheikh Nahyan submitted that all races and classes have been threatened by the fear of the unknown. In spite of modern technology and communication we remain ignorant. Fears of the unknown lead to conflict. Citing Isaac Newton, Sheikh Nahyan said “We build too many walls and not enough bridges.” He argued we had become captive to ideologies, which lead to conflict. It would be better if we were judged by our actions, by what we do; not by what we wear, nor by our customs, nor our culture.
Faith does have a constructive problem-solving role in the 21st Century and the world would be a better place if we were to respect the religions and faiths of others. It may also help if we were to adhere to Isaac Newton’s philosophy to ‘build more bridges and less walls.’
The Summit was extremely successful for healthy discussion, building bridges and developing understanding across many faiths. The organizers are to be commended. The way forward is to support the continuance and growth of future Faith Summits on the back of the next G20 Conference to be hosted in Turkey.
Graeme Lienert APM
Lay Reader and Witness Ministry
St John’s Lutheran Church, Perth
26 November 2014. firstname.lastname@example.org
Michael von Rosen, Elder G Nielsen
and ABC Radio rep.
Dr Rachael Kohn and Graeme Lienert
Peter and Janice Elliott, Coomera
Sheikh on Video ex United Arab Emirates
Gold Coast High Rise Queensland