U.S. Department of State Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 2003 - Australia

Released by the U.S. Department of State Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor on December 18, 2003, covers the period from July 1, 2002, to June 30, 2003.

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 in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has a total area of approximately 282,000 square miles, and its population is approximately 19.8 million. According to the 2001 census, 67 percent of citizens consider themselves to be Christian, including 26 percent Roman Catholic and 20 percent Anglican. 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. Among Christians, Oriental Christians and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) showed the largest increase in members from 1996 to 2001, 16 percent and 11 percent respectively. In 2001 approximately 15 percent of citizens considered themselves to have no religion, a 1.5 percent decrease from 1996.

At the time of the European settlement of the country, aboriginal inhabitants followed religions that were animistic in nature, involving belief in spirits behind the forces of nature and the influence of ancestral spirit beings. Aboriginal beliefs and spirituality, even among those 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. 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.

Recent increased immigration from Southeast Asia and the Middle East considerably expanded the numbers of citizens who identify themselves as Buddhists and Muslims. 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. Between 1996 and 2001, stated affiliation with Buddhism increased by 79 percent, Hinduism by 41 percent, Islam by 40 percent, and Judaism by 5 percent.

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 State of Tasmania is the only state or territory whose constitution 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 are given equal rights to land, status, and the building of places of worship.

In recent years, the independent federal Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) and a Parliamentary Committee have called upon the Government to review protections for religious freedoms and consider enacting new legislation. The law enables the HREOC to inquire into allegations of discrimination on religious grounds by the Federal Government and, if such allegations are substantiated, to make a 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. No statistics were available on the number of complaints received during the period covered by this report. Another federal law, the Workplace Relations Act, prohibits termination of employment on the basis of religion.

In a 1998 report, the HREOC concluded that the 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 freedoms act. In 2000 Parliament's Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade inquired into religious freedom in the country and recommended, in part, that the Government respond to the HREOC's recommendation. The Government had not responded to either the HREOC's or the Committee's recommendations by the end of the period covered by this report.

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 the 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 HREOC's 1998 report on religious freedom stated that "despite the legal protections that apply in different jurisdictions, many Australians suffer discrimination on the basis of religious belief or non-belief, including members of both mainstream and non-mainstream 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, HREOC commenced a project in March to determine whether Muslim citizens shared an ethnic origin as well as a religion with a view to extending the coverage of the Federal Race Discrimination Act to include Muslim citizens. The project's report is expected to be published in August.

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 non-indigenous. 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.

During October 2002 and 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 towards minority groups and criticized vandalism of religious properties. In 2001, Queensland police established a special Islamic Task Force to investigate acts of anti-Muslim violence, following attacks on mosques in that state. The taskforce was disbanded following the conviction in October 2002 of a 24-year-old man for an arson attack on a mosque in the State's capital, Brisbane, in 2001. 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 in the context of its overall dialog and policy of the promoting 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 dialog among all faiths.


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