Starting Conversations

By Gentry Carter. February 2016 Dunedin New Zealand.

Once a month, individuals who are diverse in nationality, age, and religion sink into the comfortable red chairs of University of Otago's Chaplaincy lounge. Though different, the individuals' similarities bring them together. They all believe in one god and engagement in respectful, theological dialogue.

The people who take these seats are members of the Dunedin Abrahamic Interfaith Group. Local religious leaders and the Dunedin City Council founded it as a movement of solidarity during the aftermath of 9/11. As Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity trace their faiths back to the patriarch Abraham. Working with and discussing similarities like this is how the group seeks to encourage knowledge, understanding, and friendship between these communities in the Otago region.

To increase knowledge and thereby trust, the group concentrates its efforts on organizing community meetings, bringing speakers to the city, sponsoring panel discussions at high schools, and putting on an annual peace lecture. These activities are steps that involve individuals in practical conversation.

"We might think we know about other faiths, but we don't know anything without that human interaction," Colin MacLeod, one of the high school teachers who works with the group, says.

Human interaction brought Saima Ijaz to the group. After moving from Pakistan to New Zealand in 2008, she realized she had taken for granted her life in the predominantly Muslim community, and she realized she wanted to be part of an interfaith dialogue.

She came across the group through a Google search, but didn't take initiative to attend its meetings until her friend suggested going. After attending a few, she realized the importance of open discussion. Ijaz argues conversation is a catalyst for minimizing prejudice.

"You're part of a legacy," she says confidently as she adjusts her bright pink hijab. "There's too much bad in the world. And it's propagated quickly. We move slowly, but we will win the race."

Messages from the Dunedin Abrahamic Interfaith Group echo her thoughts and demonstrate hope in individuals starting conversations and asking questions. However, it's important to do so respectfully.

"I think there are two types of questions—one is to learn and the other is to ridicule. Respect is asking the first," Ijaz explains. "It's important to approach others with similarities before dissimilarities."

While people won't always find similarities through their lineage like the Abrahamic Faith Group, people will always be able to find something in common. Likewise, people don't have to believe in one god or any god in order to start conversations. However, everyone should work to be part of those exchanges whether it's by sitting on the red cushions of the Dunedin Abrahamic Interfaith Group's meeting place or just in everyday life. It's just important to do so with the mindset of being respectful but not shy.

For more information about participating in Dunedin's Abrahamic interfaith conversations, visit

And for more information about all different interfaith and religions in New Zealand, visit