Friday, December 17, 2004, just a week before Christians celebrated the birth of their Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, will go down as a sad day for Christians in Victoria, for on this day under the Labor Government’s Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001, religious freedom has been seriously jeopardised.
In March 2002, two months after the Act became law, a Pentecostal group, Catch the Fire Ministries (CTFM), ran a seminar to explain Islam as they understood it, and to help Christians reach out in love to minister among the growing Muslim community in Melbourne. Evidence during the hearing suggested the Islamic Council of Victoria was instrumental in three Muslim converts of Anglo-Australian ancestry attending. With the backing of the council these three converts lodged a complaint with the Equal Opportunity Commission (pdf file 324kb) against two pastors and the CTFM.
In support of his determination, Justice Higgins declared, “Pastor Scot (the seminar leader), throughout the seminar, made fun of Muslim beliefs and conduct. It was done, not in the context of a serious discussion of Muslims’ religious beliefs; it was presented in a way which is essentially hostile, demeaning and derogatory of all Muslim people, their God, Allah, the prophet Mohammed and in general religious beliefs and practices.”
If it is true that Pastor Scot has made fun of Muslims’ beliefs and conduct, then we agree that such action is truly reprehensible and an embarrassment to every fair-minded Christian. But if, and we will need to see the full text of Justice Higgins determination to be sure on this point, the Act has led the judge to fault Pastor Scot on his selection of quotes from the Koran, Hadith and the writings of Muslim scholars generally, then this raises two important issues.
First, are judges now required to make theological judgements under the Act and just how well qualified are they to do so? Making judgements about which version of Islam is truly authentic (“mainstream”) is a big call for a judge in a secular court to have to make, and certainly a judgment open to question. Secondly, and more specifically, are we to assume that Christians quoting and commenting on Islamic texts in ways the Muslims object to, will be penalised?
This ability to critique another person’s position is integral to a free and democratic society. Senator Grant Chapman from South Australia has recently well observed, “It is the role of teachers in every religion to demonstrate why their faith is worthy of adoption, and this may involve showing why - in their opinion - other religions may be less truthful, or even in error”. For Christians, a matter of deep offence is the way in which the Koran has distorted the biblical account of the life of Jesus, and indeed Jewish history as recorded in the Old Testament.
If Islam and its writings are now to be placed in some privileged position whereby they cannot be criticised, this indeed is a rare privilege, a privilege often denied to Christianity by its cultured despisers in the West. If so, then it is a serious indictment of the Act. It was a great mistake for the Government to lump religious vilification in with racial vilification. Apart from a very few small groupings such as Jews and Sikhs, race and religion in the modern world are not the same thing.
Race for any person is a given, not so religion. Both Islam and Christianity are missionary religions, counting adherents among an ever-expanding number of races and people groups, and this situation will not change. Islam is strengthening its position in Australia, but so too is Christianity, at least in its conservative and evangelical expression. Australia must remain open to all who love liberty and truth and so the prospect of making a good life. We affirm in this context that Muslims should have liberty to make disciples for “their God, Allah (and) the prophet Mohammed”, as we too, should have a similar liberty to make disciples for the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
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