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Australia


International Religious Freedom Report 2004
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
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The law provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report, and government policy continued to contribute to the generally free practice of religion.

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has a total area of 2.9 million square miles, and its population is 20 million. According to the 2001 census, 67 percent of citizens considered themselves to be Christian, including 26 percent Roman Catholic and 20 percent Anglican. Buddhists comprised 1.9 percent of the population, Muslims 1.5 percent, Hindus 0.5 percent, and Jews 0.4 percent; all others belonging to a religion constituted 0.5 percent.

At the time of the European settlement of the country, aboriginal inhabitants followed animistic religions, involving belief in spirits behind the forces of nature and the influence of ancestral spirit beings. Aboriginal beliefs and spirituality, even among Aborigines who identify themselves as members of a traditional organized religion, are intrinsically linked to the land generally and to certain sites of significance in particular. According to the 2001 census, 5,244 persons, or less than 0.03 percent of respondents, reported practicing aboriginal traditional religions, down from 7,359 in 1996. The 1996 census reported that almost 72 percent of Aborigines practiced some form of Christianity, and 16 percent listed no religion; the 2001 census contained no comparable updated data.

During the first census in 1911, 96 percent of citizens identified themselves as Christian. Traditional Christian denominations have seen their total number and proportion of affiliates stagnate or decrease significantly since the 1950s, although from 1996 to 2001 the total number of Christians increased 1.5 percent. Over the past decade, increased immigration from Southeast Asia and the Middle East considerably expanded the numbers of citizens who identify themselves as Buddhists and Muslims and also expanded the ethnic diversity of existing Christian denominations. Between 1996 and 2001, the number of Buddhists increased from 199,812 to 357,813 persons, while the number of Muslims increased from 200,885 to 281,578 persons. The number of Jews grew from 79,800 to 84,000 persons, and Hindus from 67,300 to 95,500 persons. In 2001, approximately 15 percent of citizens considered themselves to have no religion, a 1.5 percent decrease from 1996.

Missionaries work in the country; however, there are no current statistics available on their number.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The law provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice. The Government at all levels strives to protect this right in full and does not tolerate its abuse, either by governmental or private actors.

The Constitution bars the Federal Government from making a law that imposes a state religion or religious observance, prohibits the free exercise of religion, or sets a religious test for a federal public office. It is not the source of a personal right to practice religion freely. The bar does not apply to the legislative powers of the states.

Religious adherents who have suffered religious discrimination may have recourse under federal discrimination laws. However, in 1998 a review by the independent federal Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) found that the federal laws did not adequately meet the country's obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the HREOC recommended that the Government enact a federal religious freedom act. In 2002, the Government refused to enact a religious freedom act.

The Human Rights Commissioner may inquire into allegations of systematic discrimination on religious grounds by the Federal Government and, if such allegations are substantiated, report to Parliament. Under the provisions of the Federal Racial Discrimination Act, the HREOC may also mediate a complaint when a plaintiff's religious affiliation is considered tantamount to membership in an ethnic group. In the 12 months prior to June 30, 2003, the Commission received 16 employment-related complaints on religious grounds. Another federal law, the Workplace Relations Act, prohibits termination of employment on the basis of religion.

The State of Tasmania is the only state or territory whose constitution specifically provides citizens with the right to profess and practice their religion. However, seven of the eight states and territories have laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of a person's religion or ethno-religious background. South Australia is the only jurisdiction that does not prohibit discrimination on the grounds of religion. A provision of the Federal Constitution precludes the adoption of a state religion. In addition all jurisdictions, apart from South Australia, have established independent agencies to mediate allegations of religious discrimination.

Minority religions generally are given equal rights to land, status, and the building of places of worship. However, in recent years a number of regional councils have refused their local Muslim and Buddhist communities planning permits to construct places of worship. Those communities appealed the councils' decisions to the courts for review.

Religious groups are not required to register.

The Government has put in place extensive programs to promote public acceptance of diversity and multicultural pluralism, although none are focused specifically on religion.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Government policy and practice contributed to the generally free practice of religion.

There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees.

Forced Religious Conversion

There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Abuses by Terrorist Organizations

There were no reported abuses targeted at specific religions by terrorist organizations during the period covered by this report.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom. Several nongovernmental organizations promote tolerance and better understanding among religions in the country, both indigenous and nonindigenous. These groups include the Columbian Center for Christian-Muslim Relations, the National Council of Churches in Australia and its affiliated Aboriginal and Islander Commission, and the Australian Council of Christians and Jews.

The HREOC's 1998 report on religious freedom stated, "despite the legal protections that apply in different jurisdictions, many citizens suffer discrimination on the basis of religious belief or nonbelief, including members of both mainstream and nonmainstream religions, and those of no religious persuasion." Many non-Christian adherents have complained to the HREOC that the dominance of traditional Christianity in civic life has the potential to marginalize large numbers of citizens. However, the complainants have not presented any concrete evidence of such marginalization. Persons who suffer discrimination on the basis of religion may resort to the court system, which is an effective method of obtaining redress.

Following increased reports of threats of violence and vandalism against religious property, between March and December 2003 HREOC undertook a project called Isma involving national consultations on eliminating prejudice against Arab and Muslim citizens. The HREOC released its Isma report on June 16. Instead of answering the question of whether Muslim and Arab citizens shared a common ethnic origin or race, which would entitle them to protection under the racial definition of the existing federal anti-discrimination laws, the report called on the Government to enact laws that prohibit religious discrimination and vilification (repeating a recommendation in its 1998 Report on Religious Freedom). The report also recommended that police services review their systems for recording incidents motivated by racial or religious prejudice to ensure greater consistency in the collection of data across the country, and that police services ensure that all victims whose cases do not meet the police's investigation threshold are referred to an appropriate community or human rights body.

In February, the Federal Parliament condemned racism against the Jewish community following publication of an Executive Council of Australian Jewry report that noted a large increase in anti-Semitic attacks. In 2003, the Council recorded 481 incidents, which ranged from physical violence and property damage (36 reports) to anti-Semitic material (252 reports), compared to an annual average in the past of 279 incidents.

In October 2003, the Islamic Council of Victoria (ICV) filed a civil complaint against two persons associated with Catch the Fire, a Christian group, with the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal under the state's Racial and Religious Tolerance Act of 2001. The ICV alleged that the two persons vilified Muslims during their speeches at a 2002 seminar on Islam sponsored by Catch the Fire and sought an apology, a retraction of the comments in question, and compensation. Lawyers for the defendants argued that the complaint was outside the tribunal's jurisdiction, asserting that the Victorian act infringed on the constitutional right of freedom of expression. The tribunal's decision was still pending at the end of the period covered by this report.

Following the terrorist attack in Bali in October 2002 and again following the start of military operations in Iraq in March 2003, reports of threats of violence and vandalism against religious properties in all state and territory capital cities increased and subsequently decreased. Government and religious leaders continued to call for tolerance toward minority groups and criticized vandalism of religious properties. Police forces in all states offered increased protection to religious leaders and increased patrols of religious properties.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its policy to promote human rights. Since late 2001, the U.S. Embassy in Canberra and U.S. Consulates General in Perth, Melbourne, and Sydney have conducted a nationwide outreach program aimed at promoting dialogue among all faiths.



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