As Organised Religion Declines, This Is Why These Women Keep The Faith
When an Australian white supremacist stormed the Masjid Al-Noor Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 50 worshippers inside, his actions sent shockwaves around the globe. Within weeks, a radical Islamist terror group claimed the lives of some 250 people at hotels and Christian churches in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday. Not long after, a gunman shot dead a worshipper at a San Diego synagogue.
These acts, the latest in a long line of hate crimes, seemed to reflect a recent Pew study that found religious persecution to be rife globally – with Christians targeted in 144 countries, Muslims in 142, and Jews in 87.
As people of faith face outside prejudices and assumptions in an increasingly secular and liberal world, while also battling their own internal controversies – including rising fundamentalism, nationalism and child sex abuse scandals – the intersection of faith and public life has never been more precarious.
According to Professor Marion Maddox, a specialist in religion and politics at Macquarie University, devout believers are often appalled by acts of violence committed by those who share their faith.
"These acts are often an 'us-versus-them' divider that is quite different from the lives of ordinary people integrated into religious practice," she says. "In fact, surveys show that people who are deeply involved in a religious community are far more tolerant of religious and ethnic difference."
These women share how they hold on to their faith in the face of adversity from outside – and within.
'My community supports me'
"My parents baptised us in the Roman Catholic Church so we'd be more assimilated in our schools, but I always saw the oneness between Middle Eastern culture and the Church. I'd go to Mass in the Roman Catholic Church and I would have to pay attention twice as hard. The Maronite Mass incorporates the language that Christ himself spoke – it is in some ways a lot richer than an English Mass.
It's a shame that so many people's spirituality is tainted by other people's expectations. I'm blessed that I had so much room to grow up and I never felt suppressed by my faith, but I rebelled against culture, and in my community those things were intertwined.
I married a man who I felt was on the same page as me, faith-wise. He was another rebel – he prayed and believed, but at the same time he was covered in religious tattoos. We loved our faith but we were also so expressive of ourselves as individuals.
I could never have imagined that he would leave me, but he did, three days before Christmas. I was three months pregnant. I had this perception that my community was going to judge me, but it was the exact opposite – they smothered me.
When I got divorced, I was more heartbroken that I couldn't marry in the church if I wasn't granted an annulment, but I am now detached from that outcome. There is no guilt associated with being a divorced single mum – I do believe wholeheartedly that I lived my marriage vows, but that he chose to leave.
Religious persecution exists, and Christians in many parts of the world suffer for their faith. But I feel the same anger when I think of Christchurch. No one has a right to storm a house of worship and slaughter those inside.
There have been times in my life where I've had to second-guess saying I was a Catholic, like when I worked in online publishing. I was challenged by the idea of seeing women as flesh when I know they are so much more.
Hearing about the extent of the sex-abuse scandals in the Church was soul-crushing. It is heartbreaking that someone who is supposed to represent Christ would get it so wrong. I know it's not a problem exclusive to the Catholic Church, but we dealt with it far too slowly.
A friend of mine – one I've had since childhood – is now a priest. I'm sure it wasn't an easy decision for him to make in this climate, but it was his calling and I deeply respect that.
Great priests have been there at pivotal moments in my life – in my youth as chaplains, in my marriage. I had a brilliant priest counsel me when my marriage broke down. I only hope that my son will grow up to recognise the importance of spiritual leaders."
'There's connection and love'
Rivka Ray, 49, is an Orthodox Jew who didn't know she was Jewish until after she came to Australia as a child.
"I was born in the Ukraine, in the former Soviet Union, and came to Australia in 1979, just before my 10th birthday. We settled straight into Bondi. Coming from a Third World country to a prosperous country with an established Jewish community was quite jarring, like landing on a different planet. I didn't have the language so it was quite a culture shock.
The community was warm, welcoming and absorbed us straight away.
In Soviet Russia, they did everything to erase the practice of Judaism so I didn't even know I was Jewish. My parents spoke Yiddish, but apart from that they didn't know much about the faith – there was a real threat to life and jobs if they were discovered. My parents' first act here was to put us in private Jewish school.
Whatever I learnt at school was all I had; I didn't have a connection to it through the home, which was really pivotal. But I always identified in a tribal way about being Jewish. A Jew is a Jew, whether they practise or not – there's a sense of connection, fraternity and love.
I was in my mid-20s when I reclaimed my Judaism, after doing a fashion and textile degree and really contemplating my identity. I educated myself. I put a lot of effort and when I had children, I didn't want them to start from square one to figure out who they were. My kids have been nurtured in a very traditional, orthodox Jewish home. They learn directly from the original texts.
They speak and learn in classical Hebrew. They learn from the source as opposed to learning about it.
[The Israeli state] is not controversial to me. Israel is the land of the Jews. We are the children of Israel. I don't agree to give any part of Israel away; it's not mine to give.
Persecution of Jews is nothing new. My parents-in-law were both Holocaust survivors. So we have first-hand experience, an internal consciousness that we are disliked. But it should never prevent us from being who we are. That we are still here is a testament to the fact that we have never succumbed to threats and violence. It's not something that would prevent me living overtly as a Jewish person."
'My faith grounds me'
Imaan Joshi, 45, is a GP who converted to Islam as a university student in 1995.
"I was raised Hindu, but my faith didn't resonate with me. My parents were appalled and very opposed to my conversion, which made life difficult.
I moved from India to Australia alone to study medicine. I worked all week, so I had a very minimal social life and friends. I was regularly accosted by Salafi types, who harassed me about the colour of my scarf and so on. I had no one to defend me.
My faith lapsed somewhat in the late 1990s. Then 9/11 happened. I was in Tamworth and pretty much the only Hijabi in town. My parents were terrified for me, but strangers would come up to me and say, 'Welcome to our town, we support you.' That helped solidify it for me again.
I found the Muslims in Sydney pretty regressed in many ways. They were clique-y and not very welcoming of people who'd converted [for reasons other than marriage].
I really leaned on my faith during my unhappy marriage. Leaders told me to be patient, and when I became a single mum, I found out how few friends I really had. There was minimal support from the community. That time was immensely lonely, especially with regards to my faith, because there was nothing else holding me to it.
It didn't help that most of my friends and colleagues are not Muslim. They encouraged me to date and have casual sex. They couldn't understand why I'd want to remain celibate. When I feel like I'm missing out, I remind myself that it is a choice I'm making. I can turn away, but at what cost?
People always have assumptions about Muslims. When Christchurch happened, my first thought was for my children. The world suddenly felt unsafe and I wondered how someone could hate someone so much to kill them in cold blood like that.
I feel sad and weary when terror attacks happen in the name of Islam. I think, 'Not again, please don't let it be Muslims', and dread feeling like I need to apologise, or to explain again that it's not Islam. Seeing the media going on with their rhetoric about terrorists just makes me feel worn out.
Despite all the struggles I have around trusting religious leaders who are corrupt and misogynistic, my faith grounds me. It keeps me connected with a purpose of why it's important to do the right thing even if no one else is. What comforts me each time is remembering that I didn't become Muslim for the Muslims, I became Muslim for Allah. And He is, I hope, far more benevolent, forgiving and merciful than we are to each other."