by Professor, The Reverend Gary D. Bouma AM
Five years ago the Parliament of the World’s Religions convened in Melbourne, Australia. It was a grand occasion made colourful literally and spiritually by the presence of the richest diversity of religions, faiths, spiritualities, and ways of life.
In the process of preparing for and conducting the 2009 Parliament, interreligious relations in Melbourne and the State of Victoria were greatly enhanced. Building on decades of positive interfaith leadership and political leaders from all major parties committed to promoting a multicultural and multifaith society characterised by intergroup understanding grounded in mutual respect, the 2009 Parliament drew together new and younger people who had not worked together in making harmony real. They joined those who had gone before and added their own dimensions to the effort.
For example, as a direct result of the 2009 Parliament, the number of City Councils in the City of Melbourne with ‘interreligious committees’ rose from 3 to 23 leaving only a few without. This brought the energy of interfaith activities to the grass-roots level and continues to produce much fruit. This means that local issues can be managed at the local level in the first instance. Local leadership is drawn into supporting activities as diverse as Iftar dinners during Ramadan, to Bathing the Buddha gatherings, to colourful Divali festivals and a host of other religious events. It is normal and expected for civic and religious leaders to be seen together at events and it is apparent that they know each other and work together.
Many country towns in the state of Victoria also have interreligious councils as increasing numbers of migrants settle outside the capital cities. These newcomers are welcomed as their numbers keep open vital services in towns with declining populations. So schools remain open along with banks, pharmacies and other commercial establishments. Indeed, while Australia tries to discourage refugees, many rural communities say, "send them here, we will welcome them."
While some of this might have happened without the 2009 Parliament, it cannot be denied that the event had a major effect accelerating and adding quality and depth to a process already in place.