The radical few versus the peaceful many

I have read of a church in Wellington called Celebration Church, which consists of evangelical Christians who believe that Islam is a threat to New Zealand. Coming not quite three months after the Christchurch terrorist attacks, it reminds me that there are people still in society who because of the actions of an equally few radicals, believe entire religions can and should be written off as dangerous.

They might be genuine in their concerns, yet the evidence does not appear to match. Whilst concerns have been raised about radicalized Muslims going overseas to serve the rabble that was Daesh, they were in the clear minority of potential threats. And contrary to popular belief were most likely to have been screened by New Zealand Security Intelligence Service, before they left – every time they sent an e-mail, placed a cellphone call/text, they like anyone else doing so, would have been monitored by the Government Communications Security Bureau. Yet the two biggest threats that materialized into actual events in New Zealand were not radicalized Muslims. Two were French Government agents – namely Dominique Prieur and Alain Mafart committing state sanctioned terrorism. The other was the Christchurch mosque attacker.

Anyone can be radicalized if they want to and in the correct environment, that radicalization can become militant in nature. Radicalization is one thing, but converting it into the will power to conduct or otherwise be involved in acts of violence and destruction against innocents in the community is quite another thing altogether. I am reminded though at the same time that there are many unreported instances around the world of religious faiths coming together to protect each others places of worship after an attack – and in one case, building a church:

Contrary to the belief of the evangelicals 41% of New Zealanders do no aspire to any religion at all. The 2013 Census found that the Islamic faith only makes up 1.18% of New Zealand’s population. The Buddhist faith attracts 1.5%; Hindu’s make up 2.11%; Presbyterianism 8.5%; Anglicanism 11.8%; Catholicism 12.61% and all other Christian faiths 15.14%.

If we are going to call out one religion or another for practicising discrimination against others, then we should call the whole lot out. Discrimination is something New Zealand takes a lot of pride in standing against, which assumes that New Zealanders will therefore have no problems in calling out those who practice it and condemn such acts. It means we should condemn the Buddhist violence against Christians and Muslims overseas; the attacks on synagogues in the hopes of once again stoking the fears that Jewish bankers are taking over the world. It means we should condemn the attacks on churches in places like Nigeria by Boko Haram.

My message is very simple. I have no time for extremism from anyone irrespective of nationality, or any other potentially discriminating characteristic. Like the many Christians, Hindu’s, Buddhists and others who have moved to New Zealand to live a better live, our Muslim community have tried to do the same. All such communities have one or two who will not fit in, but the very vast majority come in peace.

Religious instruction in schools not new

When I was in Year 6, we were told that parent permitting, for an hour each Friday, our class would have religious instruction.

It was 1991. I was at Waimairi Primary School and we were learning about Christianity. Each lesson would start with a prayer to God. I occasionally said one – just for participations sake, rather than anything else – and it was always for peace.

Just as I do not now, I did not believe in God then. S/he is a higher being to some, but not I. What others believe in as far as I am concerned is up to them and not me. If they want to invite people to join them in prayer, there is no problem with that. My parents never told me what to believe. And at Waimairi, teachers had to obtain a written permission slip that was sent home with students and had to be signed by their parents or caregiver, permitting them to partake in the class. Those who were not granted permission were sent to the library for its duration.

Apparently religious instruction happens in 600 schools across New Zealand, so it is hardly rare or restricted to just a few places. Nor is it just Catholic or Christian churches that want New Zealand schools to give instruction. There are schools such as Hagley Community College in Christchurch that have a prayer room, mainly used by Muslim students.

My stance on religion is simple and non-negotiable. Believe what you want, but do not force it upon me or anyone else.

It has been an interesting debate. I have been told by Muslims that I am a non-believer and somehow inferior; by Christians and Catholics that I will go to hell for my non belief in a higher being. The creationists among the God based religions have tried to argue with me that the Earth is only 6,000 years old. There is no persuading me on that count – the theory of evolution is very much what I believe in.

Should one take precedence? Absolutely not. New Zealand is supposed to be a tolerant, welcoming and open minded society where anyone – provided they abide by our law and customs – is welcome.

In their own time and way I have seen progress in the Church. It might not like the idea of same sex marriage but at the end of the day, the sun has continued to rise in the east; your teenage daughter if you have one will continue arguing like she knows everything and you will still have to pay tax – in other words life will go on.

So, there is nothing wrong with religion being taught in New Zealand schools as long as no one faith is given precedence. As long as any parent who does not wish their child to be involved in such instruction is given the chance to withdraw them.

New Zealanders religiously tolerant

Recently a journalist named Karl du Fresne opined a piece lauding the fact that New Zealand seems to be a religiously tolerant place.

As far as religion concerns this non-religious New Zealand male, I don’t care what you believe in – Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, aliens or U.F.O.’s, Scientology. Just do not ram it down my throat or that of anyone else. Don’t go knocking on peoples doors with 5 year old kids who should be playing with their mates, in tow. Don’t be sullen and angry as a couple of gentlemen from the Church of the Seven Day Adventists were when I sent them packing one time once I realised what they were doing at my door.

I know people of Christian, Muslim, Jewish and the Catholic faith’s. Never has the faith of any of them caused me or anyone I know any problems. Never have they tried suggesting an agenda they support should be somehow adopted by New Zealand. Indeed, I can only remember one time when anyone told me I would be going to hell, when organising collectors for a charity fundraiser – only after a two minute spiel from another family member about sin and salvation, was I able to speak to the collector.

There is no place for incitement of fear to achieve an agenda. There is no place for the persecution of one religion or another. New Zealand law understands and respects this. To be sure there are occasionally incidents where a disgruntled individual tries to stir hatred by leaving religiously offensive matter at a particular religious site – occasionally swastika’s get scrawled over Jewish graves or inflammatory leaflets might be delivered inciting hatred against Muslims. The Police generally take these issues fairly seriously.

The biggest danger is ignorance. Reading the commentary by people some days on social media makes my head hurt when I see generalising comments of a highly derogatory nature, such as Muslims being goat humpers who want the 72 virgins, or Jews being linked to perceived robbery vis-a-vis the banking system.

I accept that a significant part of why New Zealand is so peaceful religiously is due to our relatively minor involvement on the world stage. Our reluctance to become involved in overseas conflicts without a United Nations mandate has earned the respect of many nations. So too, has the level of transparency we enjoy from our elected officials. For anyone of a particular faith, the respect and tolerance of individuals right and ability to practice their faith peacefully will be welcomed.

So, it is on that note I welcome this report. It is part of what makes New Zealand a great place to live. Let us keep it that way, because when we start on the path of fear and hate, it is all down hill.

Trump anti-Muslim tweets no help to religious tensions

Last week United States President Donald Trump was looking at videos from Britain First, an anti-immigrant hard line nationalist group in Britain of alleged Muslim offences. One was of a boy being attacked. Another was of a statue being desecrated and a third one was allegedly of a Muslim attacking a Dutch boy on crutches. Then he retweeted them, to the horror of British Prime Minister Theresa May.

By retweeting the videos of a known nationalist hate group, Mr Trump sent a signal to Muslims that he does not view them or their religion in the same light as he does other religions. He has in effect condoned hatred on a religion and its members when most of all the West should be seeking to understand the Islamic world better.

Mr Trump’s rebuttal of Mrs May’s criticism potentially harms the British-American relationship. Mrs May was right to point out that the retweets were highly and unnecessarily inflammatory. And this has given Mrs May and her Government some unlikely allies in places she might not thought them to possibly exist.

I am no fan of Mrs May who I think of as the “Maybot”, because she was perceived to have the empathy of a robot to the victims of the Grenfell apartment block fire. However, Mrs May was quite right to rebuke Mr Trump for retweeting those videos.

Mr Trump made two significant mistakes in his response:

  1. He was too lazy to find her proper Prime Ministerial Twitter handle and sent it to another person called who also just happened to be called Theresa May
  2. His put down of Mrs May would have spoken volumes about how Mr Trump views his relationship with Britain – being able and willing to put down America’s nearest and dearest ally, which is sometimes referred to as the 51st State of the U.S. is a hugely problematic indictment on him

American diplomats will be wondering how to undo the damage. For them such a slap in the face of the senior official of their most loyal ally will be staggering. America and Britain will survive this, but the reverberations will continue for awhile yet.

This should concern every other nation wanting peaceful rapproachment with the Islamic world. The so-called leader of the free world showing contempt for a perfectly valid warning about Britain First shows how little understanding Mr Trump has of diplomatic relations.

Or cares.


Gloriavale needs to be accountable about Prayer Ready’s death

Gloriavale is a Christian community on the West Coast of the South Island near Lake Haupiri. It was established by a Christian man named Hopeful Christian (Neville Cooper), who runs the sect. Since its inception it has been in the news numerous times regarding concerns about its management, the conduct of Mr Cooper and the well being of the children there.

The community has about 600 people living there and is set on several acres of land. It has been certified as of an acceptable standard in terms of its facilities. All food there is grown or made. It has several business ventures including dairying and sphagnum moss exports. The school teaches its own curriculum, which has been certified as acceptable by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority.

Prayer Ready had down syndrome. Because of her medical condition she had trouble chewing and swallowing. The day she died the meat portion of her dinner meal had not been cut down to sufficiently small bits that she could manage. Thus she began to choke on a piece. Someone went to get help but the door handle had been removed so no one could get and no one could get out – a common practice until then at Gloriavale’s “isolation” units (a room in each hostel), where those who were ill were sent to keep the illness isolated from the rest of the people in the community.

I respect Gloriavale Christian Community do not want a misleading impression created. Except that the impression being created is far from misleading. The one that the public of New Zealand increasingly have is that there are some serious child well being issues not consistent with the expectations of New Zealand society and contrary to New Zealand law.

However Lilia Tarawa left Gloriavale with her family. Her Mother was the Mother Superior of the community and the leader of all of the women. Her father was responsible for running their sphagnum moss export business. The family was highly regarded within the community. After Ms Tarawa left, she adjusted to life outside of the camp taking advantage of the broad range of practical skills she had developed – sewing, cooking, reading music, knitting among others. She also wrote a book about life inside Gloriavale and what prompted her family to leave.

Ms Tarawa’s book backgrounds issues in the community that raise some serious doubts about the credibility of the story that the Gloriavale management told the Coroner when it investigated Ms Ready’s death. The release of the Coroners findings will do nothing to silence the speculation about what really went on. It is time that Gloriavale told the truth. It will hurt the community, but I think not telling the truth might in the end destroy Gloriavale.