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Filling the gaps as overseas trained religious workers answer the call to serve

Religious groups are increasingly turning to overseas markets for skilled workers to provide instruction, spiritual guidance and pastoral care, with more than 1000 visas for overseas trained staff granted by the federal government each year.

In 2010/11, 1835 ‘subclass 428 visas’ were granted to religious workers, compared with 1434 in 2009/10 and 1575 in 2008/09. according to Department of Immigration and Citizenship figures.

The latest available data also shows that 1447 religious worker visas were issued for the nine months between July 2011 and March 2012.

The visas are for the temporary stay of trained workers such as Christian brothers, priests, imams, monks and rabbis, who are selected because of their religious training, education and experience. Though this may not be the only pathway for religious workers to make their way to Australia, candidates under the 'subclass 428 visa' are sponsored by a religious organisation and are expected to provide leadership, counselling and guidance as well as represent their religion in the wider community.

Most of the workers under the special entry visa are recruited from the United States, followed by South Korea and Taiwan, the department’s figures show. India and Turkey also feature in the list of top 10 countries where most of the religious workers are sourced.

While a shortage of clergy is not a new problem, the growing reliance on the “importation” of religious leaders raises questions about whether the trend exacerbates the linguistic, cultural and generational divide with younger people. And if such workers are called on to provide spiritual guidance within the Australian legal and cultural framework, what challenge does this present both to the workers and the local communities they are helping?

According to a Sydney University migration expert, Dr Dimitria Groutsis, the demand for religious leaders is an example of an occupational group where there is “a shortage of home-grown talent”.

“The result is that different religious orders are casting their net beyond Australian shores to attract overseas trained religious workers,” said Dr Groutsis, a senior lecturer in the Discipline of Work and Organisational Studies at the University of Sydney’s Business School.

“While this in and of itself is not a problem, questions emerge about whether (or not) this solution meets the ethno-cultural needs of the community it is serving. The argument following this is that while religious/spiritual guidance transcends national boundaries, it is shaped by and interpreted differently in the varying ethno-cultural spaces in which it is practiced. That is, it is ethnically and culturally rooted.”

Ms Groutsis said the complexities that emerge from this line of argument raise particular concerns for second generation Australians, who may relate just as strongly to their Australian culture as they do to their parent’s pre-migration country culture.

“Knowing, understanding and working with such ethno-cultural idiosyncrasies is important,” she said.

“Informing these idiosyncrasies is Australia’s multicultural policy and a healthy respect for all religious denominations. In short, the role of the spiritual leader within such a context is to ensure that attention is given to these complex cultural synergies and contradictions.”

The latest 2011 Census data reveals that more Australians than ever are identifying as having no religious affiliation. However, Christianity remains the most commonly reported religion, with 61.1 per cent of the population reporting adherence to a Christian religion. Of the 21 million people recorded in the 2011 Census, 2.5 per cent of the population identified as Buddhist, 2.2 per cent Islam and 1.3 per cent Hinduism.

The fast growing religion in Australia was Hinduism, followed by Islam and Buddhism.

 

'When people come, they are definitely given training in things like child protection legislation, political correctness and all the sorts of norms that are expected from Australian people …'

– Yair Miller, NSW Jewish Board of Deputies

In Sydney, the local Jewish and Muslim communities spoke of the success of the official visa program for religious workers.

The Jewish community has “a number of locally produced Rabbis coming through”, said the president of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, Yair Miller.

“We do bring some in [from overseas], but it's not the norm, it's more the exception ... Most of the mainstream religions are managing to source some locally, but occasionally you need to fill that with expertise from overseas.”

Asked what Jewish organisations look for when they sponsor religious workers, Mr Miller said: “The best people for the role. The positions are very varied ... it could be educators in school, it can be youth workers, it can be congregational Rabbis … There's a whole lot of different portfolios and a number of different organisations, and each organisation is independent so they bring in their people according to their needs.”

As many sectors in the economy grapple with a shortage of skilled workers, Mr Miller said that across all the religions, there was a smaller pool of religious workers compared with the rest of the population.

“So in each religion, people who are strictly observant, who will traditionally be the religious leaders, are obviously going to be a smaller number of the overall population,” he said.

“So if you want to call that a skill shortage, I don't know whether I'd use that wording, but you're more limited in the people you can attract. So you need people who are observant and also want to get into those leadership or clerical roles and you are sometimes going to be limited by that.”

Yair Miller Yair Miller, NSW Jewish Board of Deputies

Mr Miller said that most temporary religious worker migrants were travelling to Australia from English-speaking countries.

"Ninety-nine per cent of the religious leaders that are brought in come from other Western democracies, so the level of acclimatisation is not as much as if they were coming from countries where they don't have an English-speaking background, or didn't have the same democratic or liberal norms that we do here in Australia,” he said.

Mr Miller explained that overseas religious workers who carried out duties in the Jewish community received training in Australian laws and customs.

“So our community is fortunate in that sense,” he said.

“But when people come, they are definitely given training in things like child protection legislation, political correctness and all the sorts of norms that are expected from Australian people … and they're given all that cultural background training as well because obviously each country is different in that sort of area. That sort of thing is done through all the Jewish organisations, the mainstream Jewish organisations. But, as I say, it's not as much a problem as some of the other religions who bring in people from countries that are completely different from Australia."

Religious leaders such as imams in the Turkish Australian Muslim community have been sourced from Turkey since the 1970s because it had the educational and financial resources to train them, according to Dr Abdurrahman Asaroglu, the president of Gallipoli Mosque at Auburn.

“You can’t find this type of quality in Australia and it’s cheaper,” he said.

“Universities [in Australia] are unable to provide proper training programs for imams because of the way it is structured. We have opportunities from different parts of the world where countries like Turkey are providing better quality training [that is more aligned with] what Muslim organisations here want.”

Dr Asaroglu, who has a PhD in Islamic theology from the University of Melbourne, said all workers on religious visa arrangements were trained by government religious and foreign affairs committees in Turkey before travelling to Australia.

“Knowing Islam is one thing and representing Islam is another, so you can't just grab anyone here and have them do religious work,” he said.

“They need to have particular characteristics and [uphold] particular values ... which are decided by Muslim organisations.”

He described Australia’s religious worker visa program as a “success” and said the Turkish community used it “all the time”.

“There will be a time in the future when we don’t need imams from Turkey because we will have our own training,” Dr Asaroglu said, adding that emerging communities such as the Afghani community would likely need such a program in the future.

Dr Asaroglu, who has studied the religious identity of second generation Turkish Australians in the Auburn local government area, acknowledged that it was harder for younger Muslims in Australia to relate to an imam, but said the “culture of imams is changing” in response to evolving community attitudes.

At Gallipoli Mosque, for example, Friday prayers are now conducted in both Turkish and English.

“Imams have a responsibility to be sensitive to Australian issues and values,” Dr Asaroglu said.

“Muslim and Australian values are interrelated, for example, on child protection and vandalism.”

To help address the gap in knowledge of local laws and customs, the Community Relations Commission of NSW has developed an orientation program for newly-arrived and overseas educated religious workers.

The educational program, titled ‘Serving in a New Land’, aims to “sensitise” participants to some of the issues of Australian context, culture, community and citizenship that may differ from those of their parent country.

As with all new residents, Ms Groutsis said that religious workers entering Australia experience a period of cultural and social adjustment, and it was important they be given time and support to adjust to a new country.

Read more: Serving in a new land

KEY STATISTICS: 

Religious worker visas granted by the Federal Government, according to the top 10 nationalities (2011 – 31 March 2012)

United States 288

South Korea 218

Taiwan 85

India 83

United Kingdom 68

South Africa 45

Turkey 44

Canada 39

Cambodia 38

Philippines 38

Source: Department of Immigration and Citizenship

The Point

The 'importation' of religious leaders raises questions about whether the trend exacerbates the linguistic and generational divide

Author Note

<p>Contributor: Tasnuva Bindi</p>

References

<ul> <li>*2011 Census</li> </ul>

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