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Australian religious leaders pledge interfaith response to fires

Melbourne, Australia, 23 February
Ecumenical News International

Australian religious leaders have made a commitment to a unified response to the devastating bushfires that have seared across southeast Australia, particularly the state of Victoria.

"From within our various faith traditions standing together here today, we too offer… a commitment to work together for the common good despite our differences," the religious leaders said in a statement. It was read out at a service held in the state capital Melbourne on 22 February to mark a National Day of Mourning for the victims of the fires.

The day after the memorial service, Australia was reported to be bracing for its second bush fire crisis in two weeks after hot, dry conditions returned to Victoria.

At the service, eight religious leaders stood in solidarity as a Protestant church leader and a Buddhist nun read words of lament, and then promised a common commitment to rebuild fire devastated communities.

Many of the fires are still burning two weeks after they engulfed more than 2000 homes and claimed more than 200 lives, in the worst disaster Australia has known in recent times, one that has triggered the country’s biggest-ever arson investigation.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said at the service that displaying courage, compassion and resilience was the best response communities and individuals could make after the fires.

Mr Rudd also instituted a new national tradition by calling for all Australian flags to fly at half mast on 7 February, the day when the fires largely began.
The religious leaders said in their statement that faith groups stood as one as "a sign of hope of friendships that [would] withstand division".

Reading from the statement, Rev Jason Kioa, moderator of the local synod of the Uniting Church in Australia said the faith groups hoped that through their different beliefs they would jointly "push to work for a better tomorrow for all people so that we can live, work, worship and celebrate as people who cherish the light rather than the darkness".

The section read by Buddhist nun, the Venerable Chi Kwang Sunim, said, "The faith communities of Victoria are united in profound sorrow and shock at the terrible destruction of life and property. We ache for Victoria."

Earlier in the service, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Melbourne, Denis Hart, said that together "our common hope is to rebuild our communities, our faith and our families".

However, some of those present said that respect for religious unity was split when Anglican Archbishop Philip Freier departed from the order of service and asked people to join him in saying the Lord’s Prayer, which is considered to be a specifically Christian invocation, despite leaders of other faiths standing on the podium with him.

Later there was a Ram’s horn sounded according to Jewish tradition, calling people to lament. It unified the nation in a minute of silence for those killed in the fires.