Something remarkable happens tomorrow in countries such as New Zealand. We all take a holiday to commemorate an event that slightly more than half of the population now professes not to believe in. At the last Census, 48.9 per cent of New Zealanders recorded themselves as Christians, down from 55.6 per cent at the previous count 10 years ago. And it might be wondered how many of the 48.9 per cent are active Christians as distinct from those who simply acknowledge their Christian heritage.
Yet Good Friday is not like Queen's Birthday or Labour Day, one of those national holidays that are little more than an excuse for a long weekend. Good Friday is as solemn as Anzac Day and Christmas. Shops are shut, except for the odd defiant garden centre, newspapers are not published, the day is quiet. Even churches are subdued, marking the execution of the man they believe to have been the son of God who sacrificed himself for the redemption of humanity.
Religion is part of every person's heritage. It would be hard to find a human society through the ages that did not need a story to give a meaning and purpose to life beyond the satisfaction of material needs, and to offer hope of a life after death. Good Friday marks the central event in the Christian story, Easter Sunday is its celebrated conclusion. The story has comforted and inspired a large part of the world for nearly 2000 years. It is worthy of respect.
Religion struggles for respect today. A revival of militant fundamentalism in Islamic countries has reminded the world of religion's darker contributions to history. The great challenge of the 21st century so far has been to resist the notion, provoked by jihadists, that a clash of civilisations is looming like some sort of inevitable replay of the crusades. It is to the credit of today's Christian churches that they refuse to see Islam in these terms and do their utmost to promote goodwill towards it in Western countries.
One reason to doubt the world is not destined for religious wars is the scale of migration from Islamic countries as Muslims flee the conflicts between Sunni and Shia. The movement of people is creating tensions within host countries, and terrorism such as has occurred in Brussels this week. Though the "Islamic State" of Iraq and Syria has claimed responsibility, the perpetrators appear to be acting more out of pathological alienation than religious mission.
It is hard when these outrages happen to believe that large-scale migration will be good for all concerned. Yet when people who have been hearing only the worst of each other meet face to face in everyday life, they usually come to recognise their common humanity. Immigration brings religious diversity as well as maintaining the number of Christians in New Zealand at a level that still exceed those nominating "no religion" (41.9 per cent) in the Census.
Diversity has made criticism of religion more difficult; Christianity can no longer be its sole target. But even its critics will notice tomorrow is quiet. It is a day deserving respect.
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