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Australia


International Religious Freedom Report 2006
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
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The law provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respected 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 religious groups 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 an area of 2.9 million square miles and a population of 20.5 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 constituted 1.9 percent of the population, Muslims 1.5 percent, Hindus 0.5 percent, Jews 0.4 percent, and all others professing a religion 0.5 percent.

At the time of European settlement, aboriginal inhabitants followed religions that were animistic, involving belief in spirits behind the forces of nature and the influence of ancestral spirit beings. 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. Since the 1950s traditional Christian denominations have seen their total number and proportion of affiliates stagnate or decrease significantly, 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 identified themselves as Buddhists and Muslims, and it expanded the ethnic diversity of existing Christian denominations. Between 1996 and 2001, the number of Buddhists increased from 199,812 to 357,813 persons, Muslims from 200,885 to 281,578, Jews from 79,800 to 84,000, and Hindus from 67,300 to 95,500. In 2001 approximately 15 percent of citizens considered themselves to have no religion, a 1.5 percent decrease from 1996. According to a 2002 survey, 23 percent of adults participated in church or religious activities during the three months prior to these interviews. A 2001 report listed 810 foreign Protestant, Anglican, and Independent Christian missionaries to the country.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The law provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respected this right in practice. The Government at all levels sought to protect this right in full and did 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. However, these federal constitutional prohibitions do not restrict the legislative powers of the states.

Public holidays include the Christian holy days of Good Friday, Easter Monday, and Christmas Day. Although the Government is secular, each session of Parliament begins with a joint recitation of the Lord's Prayer.

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

During the period covered by this report, the HREOC did not report to Parliament on any religious discrimination cases involving a government agency. Under the provisions of the Federal Racial Discrimination Act, the HREOC mediates a complaint when a plaintiff's religious affiliation is considered tantamount to membership in an ethnic group. During the twelve-month period ending June 30, 2005, the commission received sixteen employment-related complaints alleging discrimination 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 explicitly prohibit discrimination on the grounds of religion. All jurisdictions, apart from South Australia, have established independent agencies to mediate allegations of religious discrimination.

Minority religious groups and communities were generally given equal rights to land, status, and the building of places of worship. However, in the past a number of small city councils refused their local Muslim and Buddhist communities planning permits to construct places of worship. Those religious communities successfully appealed the councils' decisions to the courts. For instance, in November 2004 more than 200 Muslims gathered to celebrate the opening of a western Sydney Islamic prayer center, which had been subject to a construction delay because the local council in 2003 had refused the developers a planning permit, reportedly deeming the center to be incompatible with local community beliefs.

In June 2005 the Victoria Civil and Administrative Tribunal ordered two Christian pastors to make a public apology, via newspaper statements, for comments that the court held had vilified Muslims. It was estimated that the newspaper advertisements would cost $52,900 (A$68,690). The tribunal also ordered the pastors not to repeat the comments anywhere in the country. In August 2005 the court of appeal granted a stay on the order for an apology but left in place the order that the pastors not repeat the comments. The pastors appealed the court of appeal's decision to the Victoria Supreme Court; the appeal was scheduled to be heard on August 21-22, 2006. In 2003 the Islamic Council of Victoria (ICV) had filed a complaint under Victoria's Racial and Religious Tolerance Act against the pastors and their ministry organization. The act makes illegal "conduct that incites hatred against, serious contempt for, or revulsion or severe ridicule of, that other person or class of persons" on the grounds of religious belief. In August 2005 a coalition of international religious freedom organizations wrote to the attorney general alleging that the act violates Article 18 of the ICCPR, which protects religious speech.

Religious groups are not required to register.

The Government permits religious education in public schools, generally taught by volunteers using approved curriculum, with the option for parents to have their child not attend.

The Government has put in place extensive programs to promote public acceptance of diversity and cultural pluralism, as well as funding for a variety of interfaith forums, including sponsorship of the International Dialogue on Interfaith Cooperation.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

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

There were no religious prisoners or detainees in the country.

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.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

The generally amicable relationship among religious groups in society contributed to religious freedom. Several nongovernmental organizations promoted tolerance and better understanding among religions in the country, both indigenous and nonindigenous. These groups included 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.

In 2003, in response to an increase in anti-Islamic sentiment, the HREOC undertook a project involving national consultations on eliminating prejudice against Arab and Muslim citizens. As part of the consultations, the commission considered whether Muslim citizens shared an ethnic origin or race, as well as a religion, which would entitle them to comprehensive protection under the Federal Race Discrimination Act. The commission's report, made public in June 2004, contained no findings on the racial status of Arab and Muslim citizens. However, it called on the Government to extend the coverage of antidiscrimination legislation to encompass religion.

In the 12 month period ending September 30, 2005, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry recorded 332 anti-Semitic incidents, which ranged from physical violence and property damage (11 reports) to harassment and offensive written and electronic media messages, compared to a total of 425 incidents in 2004. Although this was a significant decrease, it was still higher than the annual average of 301 incidents since reports were first compiled in 1989. (Such incidents increased from September 1990 to a high in September 2002; since then, they have decreased each year.)

In January 2005 the leader of the neo-Nazi Australian Nationalist Movement pleaded not guilty to charges of criminal damage and conspiracy to cause arson in connection with incidents in 2004 in which several Asian-owned businesses and a synagogue in Perth were firebombed or sprayed with racist graffiti. His trial, scheduled for March 2006, was cancelled when he skipped bail in February 2006, and the case was adjourned. He was rearrested in April 2006. At a status conference on June 20, 2006, his trial was scheduled for February 5, 2007.

On December 11, 2005, there was a riot in the Sydney suburb of Cronulla, sparked by suspicions that a group of Lebanese-Australian youths had assaulted two lifeguards. Demonstrators against the assault displayed anti-Arab and anti-Muslim slogans. When the gathering turned violent, bystanders perceived to be of Middle Eastern origin or Muslim were attacked. At least thirty persons were injured in the fighting. The following day, retaliatory vandalism and other assaults were reported around Sydney.

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.



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