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Clark: Regional Interfaith Dialogue Conference

Embargoed until 10.30am (Philippines time)
[3.30pm NZ time]
Tuesday, 14 March 2006

Rt Hon Helen Clark
Prime Minister of New Zealand

Address at the
Regional Interfaith Dialogue Conference


10.30 am (Philippines time)
[3.30pm NZ time]

Tuesday 14 March 2006

The New Zealand government is pleased to be a co-sponsor of this regional interfaith dialogue.

We regard the building of greater understanding through dialogue as of the utmost importance in the Asia-Pacific. Our wider region is one where all of the world’s great faiths are to be found – and the same is true of New Zealand itself, which is becoming increasingly multicultural and diverse.

So often we see tension and conflict exacerbated in the name of religion, even to the extent of acts of terrorism.

Most adherents of religions whose names are invoked to justify violence strongly deplore and condemn such acts. Nonetheless they can still be subjected to suspicion and backlash which is completely unjustified. That in itself gives rise to further tension. It is tension of that kind which I believe interfaith dialogue can address very effectively.

Of course, strengthening interfaith ties, especially in the face of increased violence, will be a long term process. There is no quick fix solution to the situation we find ourselves in.

But long-lasting peace in our nations, our region, and our world can be built by a growing understanding of the values and beliefs we share in common, and by a willingness to accept and respect difference.

In dialogue, we can empower each other, affirm our hopes, nurture our relationships, and achieve mutual respect for each other. We can also affirm our commitment to tolerance and our rejection of extremism and violence.

There is an imperative for us all to act – in our respective capacities as governmental and faith leaders.

I, for one, refuse to accept that conflict between faith communities and civilisations is inevitable in the twenty-first century.

I believe we owe it to today’s children and future generations to build a world in which we strengthen the co-operation and understanding between us.

September 11, 2001, and what has followed around the world, demands that we respond not by accentuating and exacerbating tension, but by engagement and genuine attempts to bridge the divisions which so clearly exist.

For my government, that has meant renewed efforts to build stronger links between our small Western nation, with its predominantly Judeo-Christian value system, and governments and peoples in the Islamic world in particular.

It has also focused our attention on the paramount need for inclusion and respect for each other within our own diverse nation, with the objective that no faith community feels marginalised or excluded within our nation.

This meeting in Cebu will build on the good work begun at Yogyakarta fifteen months ago. I am delighted to see New Zealand’s close Pacific neighbour, Fiji, join the regional dialogue for the first time. Fiji is made up of diverse ethnic and religious communities, and can bring unique perspectives to this dialogue. In turn, I hope the outcome of the dialogue here will support leaders in Fiji to resolve tensions between communities.

At this dialogue, the New Zealand delegation is to lead a workshop on the role of the news media in promoting interfaith co-operation.

This is not a simple issue in my country, where freedom of expression is – rightly in my view – regarded as a fundamental human right, and is subject to very few constraints.

In practice, the most powerful constraint is that imposed by media organisations on themselves. Every day, judgments are made about what to publish or broadcast. Regard is given to the need for accuracy, and – to a greater or lesser extent – the need for balance and good taste in reporting.

Faced with the same decisions and challenges, media organisations will reach very different conclusions on whether or not to publish or broadcast. That dilemma could be seen in the debate across many countries about the publication of the cartoons of Mohammed, which many in the Muslim world found blasphemous and deeply offensive. I have read many fine commentaries from those who supported non-publication; but have found the justifications of those who did publish less than convincing.

I do not believe the decision on whether or not to publish was about the right to freedom of speech. Clearly that right exists in my country and many others.

Rather I believe the central issue is one of judgment – of whether to publish, knowing that publication would inflame tensions and provoke division. Publication in such circumstances cannot be good judgment, and deserves to be criticised on that basis.

Of course there is no expectation that media in a free society should shape that society in any particular way.

But across many media organisations in many countries, there is a huge sense of professionalism and of fair play.

Perhaps what the controversy over the publication of the cartoons in some Western media shows is the need to engage media organisations in a public conversation about interfaith dialogue, and the issues which are at stake.

In the aftermath of the cartoon controversy, media in my country have been engaging in a dialogue facilitated by our Race Relations Commissioner, who is a delegate here, about the role they play in our increasingly diverse society.

When issues of such fundamental importance as the cohesion of our diverse societies and international community are at stake, it would surely be disappointing if most news media did not wish to be part of overcoming the tensions between us, rather than contributing to further division.

I look forward to hearing of the outcome of the deliberations of this conference on this issue, as indeed on the other important themes to be discussed.

In the end, the worth of this regional interfaith process will be measured by the determination of each of us represented at it to take the insights and perspectives offered here back to our home countries and apply them to building better understanding between faiths there.

We have it within our power to lead action in our own countries, and across national boundaries in our region.

The New Zealand Government wants this process to continue. Today I issue an invitation on behalf of New Zealand for the third meeting of the regional interfaith dialogue to be held in our country. We would welcome the opportunity to share with our friends across the faiths in our region the way in which we work to promote interfaith dialogue. I understand from our delegation leader, Manuka Henare, that there is also a willingness in Maoridom for Maori spirituality to be engaged in what New Zealand’s indigenous people would regard as an extremely important event.

And now, in the unique spirit of New Zealand, I would like to conclude by inviting our delegation to support my address by singing a waiata, a traditional song.

Thank you for listening to New Zealand perspectives on the importance of interfaith dialogue. I wish the conference every success


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