Maintaining interfaith harmony

IT IS a pragmatic solution to the space crunch in a small city state, but the readiness of religious groups to share worship space reflects a spirit of accommodation that is not always second nature here when land shortage spurs competition. Cultural barriers that might demand exclusivity work against smaller religious groups, as most of them lack funds to secure property of their own and currently rent commercial or industrial space for their activities. They will benefit from the National Development Ministry's proposal to build multistorey, multi-user places of worship.

Such a gravitation in a spatial sense could serve as a metaphor for the religious harmony upheld in the formal declaration of unity issued in 2003 by all mainstream religious groups here. Indeed, as the world's most religiously diverse country, according to the Pew Research Centre, such aspirations have to be cultivated and pursued out of necessity.

Mutual exclusion is the norm in many places, whereas no one here bats an eye to see a Hindu temple, a Buddhist temple and a Jewish synagogue clustered at Waterloo Street. Other parts of the island, too, are witness to such amity, for example, when Muslim, Taoist and Hindu places of worship are sited close to each other. Some have taken it one step further at the Loyang Tua Pek Kong Temple where statues of Taoist, Buddhist and Hindu deities have been brought together under one roof. That partly reflects a syncretism in the practices of some older folk who pray to different deities.

As the religiosity of younger generations is different, a conscious effort must be made to build mutual trust and respect among different faiths, and among different groups within a religion. Religious peace and harmony is certainly not the natural order of things, as events around the world have made painfully obvious. In Malaysia, for example, much angst has arisen over the public display of a Christian cross and to the words used to refer to God. There are rare exceptions, of course, such as instances of churches in the United States or Europe opening their doors to give Muslims a place to pray, or Muslims in the Middle East sheltering persecuted Christians. But what looms larger are the forces of radicalism.

That's why even after 66 years, the Inter-Religious Organisation remains keenly aware that interfaith dialogue must be steadfastly driven as emerging socio-cultural issues and outside influences hold the potential of driving a wedge between people. Hate messages or careless words spread via the Internet, if left to fester, can undo the religious tolerance and trust that have been painstakingly built here over the past few decades. Pray that never happens.