Australian Conference Breaks Barriers
01 June 2003

'Together we can make a world of difference' was the theme of a conference organized by MRA/Initiatives of Change in Collaroy, New South Wales, Australia in April.

'Together we can make a world of difference' was the theme of a conference organized by MRA/Initiatives of Change in Collaroy, New South Wales, Australia in April.

The challenges involved in making this slogan a reality were borne out by a wealth of experience from all continents. Some of the 280 participants had come from opposing sides of regional conflicts.

A panel of speakers from Lebanon, Malaysia and Indonesia, spoke on the theme 'Breaking the chain of hate'. Hisham Shihab, from Lebanon, described how, as a 13-year-old member of a Muslim militia group, he had been taught that the world was divided between Islam and unbelief. 'Our duty was to overcome the World of Unbelief, to defend our Islamic world.' This view had been confirmed by the rhetoric of the Christian politicians of the day, and the beatings administered by gangs of youths wearing crucifixes.

Shihab had left the militia after refusing orders to shoot at an old woman and two children. Later he read the New Testament and discovered that the Christians he knew in his neighbourhood 'were not good Christians, just as we were not good Muslims. If we really implement what we read in our spiritual books then we will meet together.' He challenged the mass of moderate followers of Islam to take responsibility for addressing corruption, exploitation and lack of basic rights within their societies rather than allowing a culture of blame to prevail-and called for Western governments to stop supporting repressive and corrupt regimes in the Middle East.

Assaad Shaftari had been a senior officer in the Christian militia during the civil war. Believing that he was fighting for a just cause, 'there was nothing I was not prepared to do'. Later, as he had begun to open all parts of his life to God's searchlight, he started to see things differently. He had made a public apology to his victims and their families in the Lebanese press, provoking some former colleagues to accuse him of being a traitor.

A workshop for people involved in peacemaking, justice, and good governance in the South Pacific region led to conference participants from Australia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Fiji setting up a Pacific support network. Ratu Meli Vesikula, an indigenous Fijian chief who had led a campaign of terror against non-indigenous Fijians after the 1987 coup, spoke of how he was now working for reconciliation and justice.

Mathew Wale from the Solomon Islands described how his work to deliver humanitarian aid to all communities had angered the local warlord. As a result, a gang of thugs had come at night and beaten him and ransacked his house in front of his children. The next day he went with his family to tell the warlord that he forgave him. The result was another night-time visit and more beatings. Wale went back to see the warlord again. This happened several times, with Wale insisting that there must be no limit to the number of times he forgave.

A national 'Open Homes, Open Hearts' campaign to encourage Australians of different cultures to reach out to each other was launched in a public forum chaired by Stepan Kerkyasharian, Chairman of the Community Relations Commission of New South Wales. The audience heard perspectives on multiculturalism from a cross-section of young Australians, and were moved to tears by two speakers from South Africa, Ginn Fourie and Letlapa Mphahlele.

Fourie spoke of the death of her daughter when a Cape Town bar was attacked by the Azanian Peoples Liberation Army (APLA) ten years ago. During the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings she had met, and forgiven, the people who carried out the killings. Later still she met Mphahlele, the APLA commander who had ordered the attack. He told the audience that this had been the first time he had met a mother of a victim of APLA violence, and that he had been deeply moved.

Rather than the monster she had expected, Fourie had found in Mphahlele a man she came to respect. They are now working together on a development project named-on Mphahlele's insistence-after Fourie's daughter, Lyndi. To those who ask how she could forgive, Fourie quotes Martin Luther King: 'We are either going to learn to live together as brothers, or die together as fools.'

Australia's own on-going need for reconciliation was focused by Aboriginal speakers, including Doris Pilkington, author of The Rabbit-proof Fence, the film that brought the pain of Australia's 'stolen generations' to the attention of the world. Audrey Kinnear, Co-chairperson of Journey of Healing, spoke of the suffering and discrimination she had seen, and the hope that she had found through the millions who had marched and signed books to say 'sorry'.

The challenges of building a multicultural society were outlined by speakers from Greater Dandenong, Melbourne, an area with 140 national groups where more than half the population was born outside Australia. An interfaith network works closely with the city council to promote better understanding.

Keysar Trad, Director of the Lebanese Muslim Association in Sydney, spoke of his struggle to overcome the negative images of Muslims that persist.

On the final morning participants queued to tell of the new hope and commitment they had found. One speaker said that he had been challenged by the presence at the opening dinner of the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, Phil Ruddock, because he strongly disagreed with his policies. But he had been inspired by the many examples of people reaching across divisions and had decided to take a more constructive approach.
The conference concluded with everyone joining in a song specially written for the occasion: 'Together we can make a world of difference'.
Mike Lowe

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