Religious groups say Australia's asylum seeker policy lacks compassion and runs counter to a multitude of religious teachings.
By
Darren Mara

Source
World News Radio
5 Nov 2013 - 10:00 AM  UPDATED 5 Nov 2013 - 10:00 AM

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

Australia's major religious groups say they're disheartened by the current state of the asylum debate in Australia.

Darren Mara takes a look at what some of the biggest religious groups in the land have to say about Australia's asylum-seeker policies, and the political debate which underpins it.

Click on the audio tab above to hear the full story

Many of the world's major religious texts speak of treating the weary stranger with compassion.

In the Bible, Leviticus Chapter 19: 33-34 says the stranger should be treated as a "native among you".

In the Quran, Surat At-Tawbah 9, verse 6, says "if anyone of the disbelievers seeks your protection, then grant him protection".

Likewise, the Hindu Vedas and teachings in Buddhism preach compassion when those in trouble seek asylum in order to escape persecution.

But all of the major religions in Australia agree that compassion is the one thing missing from the way people seeking asylum in this country are treated.

The Catholic Bishop of Darwin, Eugene Hurley, says Australia's asylum debate has been largely shaped by ignorance.

Bishop Hurley says asylum-seekers are misunderstood, demonised and all too often labelled as queue-jumpers and terrorists.

And he describes policies such as mandatory and off-shore detention as simply unChristian.

"Not only is it unChristian, but when one begins to look at the various international covenants to which we are signatories, it seems to me that it's failing some of the tests that would be normally be applied there."

Bishop Hurley says Australians should expect a more morally forthright approach to the asylum debate from political leaders.

He says asylum-seekers have a legal right to seek refuge in Australia, disputing the new government description of asylum-seekers arriving by boat as "illegals".

Bishop Hurley says the immigration office of the Australian Bishops Conference regularly raises objections over government asylum policies.

"However, in general, they elect not to engage, or connect with us, or to discuss the matter. I personally wrote to the then-prime minister prior to the recent election and the then-leader of the opposition. I did have the courtesy of a phone call from the then-minister (Tony) Burke but had absolutely no acknowledgment of the letter from the then opposition."

Bishop Hurley says this approach makes it hard to engage with government on the asylum issue in a meaningful way.

And he holds out particular criticism of the weekly press briefings held by the new Coalition Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison.

"It was a very oft-quoted and alluded-to matter prior to the election. There didn't seem to be any difficulty about approaching those matters prior to the election. But it seems that since the election it's become a matter of concern for the government."

The Anglican Archbishop, Glenn Davies, shares the Catholic Bishop Hurley's views on the state of the asylum debate in Australia.

Speaking recently at the annual Synod of the Anglican Church in Australia, the Archbishop said politicians have hijacked the debate and are exacerbating an already-tragic situation.

"Sadly it has become a political football in recent years, with politicians playing to irrational fears within our society. The evil of people-smugglers only exacerbates the ethical minefield that awaits any who enter into this debate. Yet no policy can justify the ill-treatment of human beings, which either minimises or dehumanises their status as bearers of the image of God."

Archbishop Davies acknowledges that Christians are divided on some issues, such as where asylum-seekers should be processed or how big Australia's refugee intake should be.

But he says the detention of asylum-seekers behind wire mesh enclosures is a tragedy that should be deplored.

In June this year, the small inner-Sydney Anglican church of St Barnabas held a service for asylum-seekers who died at sea.

Mike Paget is the senior pastor at St Barnabas.

"I would say that our current asylum-seeker policy lacks compassion, the kind of compassion that is particularly enabled by the Christian story."

Whilst those who follow Christianity make up the bulk of worshippers in Australia, the fastest-growing religions are Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam.

Kim Hollow is the president of the Federation of Australian Buddhist Councils.

Mr Hollow says the major teaching in Buddhism is the respect of all sentient beings and is against all forms of physical or psychological violence.

He says compassion, as taught in Buddhism, should know no national boundaries.

"It's a very complex question. As Buddhists, we are always very conscious that we always have a humanitarian approach to eligibility, processing and settlement and we remain compassionate in respect of all asylum-seekers. We are all looking for an opportunity to live in peace, whether we're born in Australia or in a country which persecutes its own people."

Mr Hollow says more emphasis should be placed on stopping what are called "push factors" - the reasons asylum-seekers are seeking asylum.

He says however that Australia's refugee intake quota of 20,000 each year should be respected.

"I think everyone needs to be mindful that we should do what we can do in our capacity. I think our current intake is 20,000 per year. I think that's obviously something that's been thought through by both the previous and the current national government. I think if we try and remain conscious of that restriction, I think that's got to guide what we do."

Islam also has much to say about how Muslims and non-Muslims should be treated when fleeing persecution.

According to the Muslim holy book, the Quran, asylum is the right of anyone seeking protection.

"The Quran tells us that all humanity are equal and they all have equal rights to safety, equal rights to access food and water and equal rights to raise their children in an atmosphere of peace. This is a basic human right that every human being is entitled to and where some people don't enjoy these rights it's up to the faithful to try and help them find ways to help them enjoy their rights."

That was Kaisar Trad, a well-known Muslim Australian and now spokesman for the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils.

Mr Trad says Australian government policies are an offence to the god of Islam.

He says fears of invasion and anxiety are affecting the judgement of those in charge of Australia's asylum-seeker policies.

And he says the plight of asylum-seekers should never be exploited for the sake of political expediency.

"Quite often we hear types of rhetoric from immigration ministers and government officials and this is, in effect, playing with human life and this should not happen. They should have more compassion and more understanding towards the needs of human beings who are fleeing persecution."

Mr Trad proposes setting up more asylum-seeker processing points at refugee hotspots around the world.

He says this could reduce the number of people risking their lives seeking asylum in Australia by boat and bring some level of dignity to the asylum process.

Karthik Subramanian, from the Hindu Council of Australia, says respecting the dignity of asylum-seekers should be a priority.

Mr Subramanian refers to a passage in the Hindu sanskrit text, the Taittirīya Upanishad, which says: "Regard Mother, Father, Teacher and the Uninvited Guest as God."

Mr Subramanian says government policies such as mandatory, long-term detention are an affront to this.

"You certainly don't want to have children and women and people being detained for a long time. Any approach should start with a humanitarian approach and then work towards a practical solution from that."