Some time ago the Muslims in our community bought a church building that had been left unused after the church merged with another congregation. The Muslims turned the building into a mosque. Within a short time two unsuccessful attempts were made to burn the building to the ground. There is obviously a faction in our town that does not tolerate a mosque in our midst.
The “Weekend Australian Magazine” (26/9/15) contained an article on what is happening in the city of Bendigo in Victoria. Their city Council was faced with an application for the building of a mosque in the city. Predictably there were people opposed to this development. However what surprised everyone was that the opposition was hijacked by ultra-right wing extremists (by and large from outside of Bendigo) who organised a protest rally in the city that turned quite ugly.
These two situations raise the spectre of freedom of religion in Australia. The simplistic right-wing solution is to say. “Sorry, this is a Christian country where mosques are not appropriate.” Or as I read in one Facebook post, “As soon as Saudi Arabia gives Christians there the freedom to build churches we’ll permit Muslims here to build mosques unopposed.” The reality is never that simple. For starters one needs to question whether Australia was ever a “Christian country” anyway. And just because Saudi Arabia is religiously intolerant doesn’t mean we should follow suit.
In Australia we are blessed with freedom of religion – a tenuous right that we need to protect. We don’t agree with Muslims but we allow them the freedom to worship and to live by their convictions. That is a blessing that is a fruit of Christianity learned through painful experiences of sectarian conflict. So while Australia is not specifically a Christian country its ethos and culture has nevertheless been shaped to some extent by a Judaeo-Christian world and life view. It recognises that true faith cannot be imposed or coerced but needs to be owned. It recognises that the weeds and the wheat coexist until Jesus returns. Above all it is based on rights of the individual who has been made in the image of God. This blessing of the Judaeo-Christian influence works both ways. The freedom of religion that gives Muslims the right to build mosques and worship in them is the same freedom of religion that gives us the right to build churches and worship in them. And in an age in which Christianity is being increasingly opposed and marginalised we ought to strongly defend the principle of freedom of religion.
But having said that, we also need to add that freedom has boundaries. Imagine that someone wanted to restore an ancient Canaanite religion and practice it today in one of our major cities. That would not be surprising because in many places in the world today there are small groups of people who are turning to old pagan religions. But what if this this group of modern Baal worshippers wanted to include child sacrifices as part of their rituals? Clearly that would be overstepping the boundaries of our freedom of religion.
This is where the problems arise when it comes to freedom of religion. Some practices associated with some religions are clearly contrary to our Aussie society. Of course the question needs to be asked whether certain practices (female circumcision and honour killings?) are inherently religious or whether they are just cultural baggage that is part of being from another country.
Let me mention two examples. Muslims are allowed to marry more than one wife. In Australia we call that bigamy, which is illegal. So do we tolerate bigamy as part of our freedom of religion? It seems to me that this an area where the Muslim faith oversteps what is acceptable in their adopted country. From The Netherlands I read a recent news item about the influx of refugees from the Middle East. It reported that amongst the Muslim entering the country there were two girls of 13 and two of 14 who were married (or betrothed to be married) – something that is illegal in western nations. One of these children was married to a 38-year old man. I would suggest that in this case our laws for the protection of children, trumps our laws about freedom of religion.
Above all, freedom of religion gives us the freedom to speak gospel words into the lives of refugees who come into our country. Freedom of religion here gives us wonderful opportunities to do missions in our own back yards.