2 February 2023

Interfaith plans plagued by funding shortage, COVID fallout

Primary school teachers visit a mosque during an Interfaith Network of Greater Dandenong tour. Picture: supplied.

Jenan Taylor

17 January 2023

Efforts to promote multi faith and multicultural cohesion may be flatlining due to lack of funding and the effects of the pandemic, the umbrella body of the Victorian interfaith community says.

Faith Communities Council of Victoria said that some interfaith networks were set to resume pre-COVID activities such as places of worship tours, but for those not supported by their local councils, it was difficult to continue.

It comes as several interfaith networks across Melbourne and regional Victoria say they face challenges planning community activities.

FCCV Chairperson the Reverend Albert Lange said councils had a responsibility to help the local interfaith networks with financial and in-kind support.

“An interfaith network brings about social harmony. It’s not just presenting a religion or having discussions about religious topics. It’s also social welfare, it’s family violence, it’s child protection. It’s youth unemployment, and making sure people have got the right facilities to access government departments,” Mr Lange said.

The Knox Interfaith Network said it had not yet considered running its places of worship tours in 2023 because there was no local council funding for it.

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Network president Mark Herrmann said the group had been funded to run its last set of Interfaith tours by the Victorian government, but COVID had hit and the group had finally used up the grant in June 2022.

He said the network had yet to meet to reassess the situation.

Mr Herrmann said the group had been funded to conduct tours for schools, and had delivered successful excursions for several Christian schools before COVID.

He said the tours, some of which included spending the day at the Islamic Museum in Thornbury or the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, were aimed at broadening the students’ understanding of Melbourne’s many faiths and multicultural communities.

He said the group hoped to build on that record with young people, but had been unsuccessful in its recent submissions to Knox City Council for a grant.

The only Council grant his network had been able to obtain in the last few years enabled participation in an Indigenous cultural event, Mr Herrmann said.

Knox City Council said it has provided financial and in-kind support to the Knox Interfaith Network, including meeting spaces, and grants through various Council funding streams.

It also said it had supported the network to participate in local events such as Carols by Candlelight and Cultural Diversity Week.

Mr Herrmann said his group had hoped its places of worship tours would do as well as those of the Interfaith Network of Greater Dandenong, but as a smaller body it was very dependent on council support.

But the Dandenong network said its places of worship tours were curtailed considerably because of the pandemic. 

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Executive officer Helen Heath said prior to COVID the group conducted up to 50 tours a year.  

IN 2022 it managed to run a few special group tours and only three excursions for the general public.

Although the stop-start nature of COVID restrictions had made it hard to make definitive plans, she was optimistic that 2023 would be much better.

Ms Heath said the tours, run since 1991, were a major initiative for the Dandenong-based network and regularly took members of the general public, schools, including St Paul’s Anglican Grammar, and special interest groups such as Rotary, council staff, teachers and police bodies who wanted professional development or sensitivity training to a variety of places of worship.

The group also gave refugees and asylum seekers the chance to participate by making sure there were free places for them on the public tours before COVID, however things had changed since then, she said.

“We’ve had to become a bit more hardnosed because we’ve got to cover the [tour] bus. It’s not cheap. And we don’t want to put the price up for the public tours. So we’ve applied for a federal government grant to get some money for that,” Ms Heath said.

“It helps people who are new to the country to see a bit of Australia, make them feel welcome, help them understand a bit of how we do things here, and make new connections and friendships.”

She said that the network had always been well-supported by the local council but that it was trying to be more self-sustaining.

But Ms Heath also said while Greater Dandenong’s array of faith communities made it rich in what tours could be offered, organising them took time, careful design and experienced and empathetic tour facilitators.  

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She said the network also tended to get interest from groups in regional areas who were prepared to travel for the chance to take the tours, because the interfaith networks near them were so under resourced.

“So, it’s often down to the volunteers. And [what they do] is not recognised as a viable path. Yet, so many local governments will only act when there’s a crisis, and tend to go ‘Oh, gosh, the mosque’s being attacked, we better talk to the interfaith network’. It’s about preventing harm, building relationships, having that connection, to begin with,” Ms Heath said.

Reverend Lange said he agreed with that view and that he wanted councils to see how interfaith activities could help prevent social isolation and radicalisation.

 He said councils in areas such as Geelong, where there was a growth of immigrants and a variety of faith traditions, had a responsibility to provide more aid.

Mr Lange said he was set to negotiate in late January with the City of Greater Geelong to that end, to give financial assistance to the Geelong Interfaith Network.

The group’s activities include organising an annual multicultural festival and a monthly radio show on community radio.

But network secretary Randall Apps said that funding from the local council had been minimal for years, compared to other councils.

“We do have discount venues for meetings, whereas other networks have free venues to meet,” Mr Apps said. “However, other friends from other funded networks have said that we really should have more support.”

City of Greater Geelong said that in 2020-21 it had provided a community grant to help the Geelong Interfaith Network purchase a laptop and a Zoom licence fee, and that it had also provided $3,900 to help the group publish a booklet and flyer.

Acting chief executive officer Bryce Posser said the council had not received any applications from the network for the last two funding rounds.

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