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Home-grown clerics sow seeds of belonging

New visa rules mean religious teachers wanting to work in Australia will have to speak better English. But is it better to train clerics locally to fill the religious skills shortage?

As of July this year, sponsored visa applicants under a special labour agreement for ministers of religion must demonstrate an average test score of at least 5.0 in the International English Language Testing System. Alternatively, they must hold a passport in Canada, New Zealand, the Republic of Ireland, the UK or the US.

If they fail to meet one of the two criteria, they are expected to have completed at least five years of full-time study in secondary or tertiary institution conducted in English, or else will be directly serving the needs of a particular ethnic group within “a cloistered or monastic environment” with limited interaction with wider Australian society.

A spokesperson for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection said the changes were introduced “to uphold the integrity of the employer sponsored visa programmes and better assist religious organisations to meet the spiritual needs of Australia’s multicultural society.”

A trial of the new rules is underway and migration agents have been notified. But many religious organisations are either unaware or unclear on some of the rules and requirements for the new labour agreements.

Ramachandra Athreiya Rama, General Secretary of the Australian Council of Hindu Clergy, said the new rules reflect a need for qualified and professional clergy who speak good English.

“Our children have grown up here and they don’t speak their native language fluently, therefore English is important for clergies to do their job effectively. They also need to interact with Australian culture and speaking English is part and parcel so this legislation actually works in the favor of religious ministers,” he said.

Pandit Rama pointed out that speaking good English is essential for participating in religious leadership forums and establishing multi-faith relationships.

The immigration department has announced community consultations with religious organisations and leaders to explain the new rules and answer any questions.

The new employer-sponsored visa arrangements reflect a growing reliance on “imported” religious teachers by local faith groups. 

“Our children have grown up here... therefore English is important for clergies to do their job effectively. They also need to interact with Australian culture and speaking English is part and parcel”

– Ramachandra Athreiya Rama, General Secretary of the Australian Council of Hindu Clergy.

Sydney University migration expert, Dr Dimitria Groutsis, has previously told The Point Magazine that 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”, she said. 

The problem has surfaced often in debates about the need for locally trained imams in Australian Muslim communities.

In a 2014 article published in the Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, Professor Shahram Akbarzadeh of Deakin University wrote that “many observers have noted that ‘imported’ imams had little relevance for many young Australian Muslims, who are born and bred in Australia”.

“These imams often lack the necessary English-language proficiency and firm knowledge of the Australian culture and society to speak to Muslim youth who know no other country than Australia. This disconnect with the Australian context, while gradually repaired over time, is a significant drawback for Muslim imams (from overseas)”, he argued.

In the wake of the London 7/7 bombings in 2005, the Howard Government established National Centres of Excellence for Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne, Griffith University and the University of Western Sydney.

The academic centres were established to meet the learning needs of aspiring and existing Muslim community leaders. They were funded under the first government program to address the threat of home-grown terrorism in Australia, the National Action Plan for Social Cohesion, Harmony and Security.

The idea of training imams domestically has surfaced in a number of forms since then. There are concerns that if young Muslims can’t communicate or relate to their religious teachers, they might be drawn into the influence of unqualified or extremist “backyard” preachers.   

This month, the New South Wales government is conducting a state-wide audit of prayer groups across schools after a student was allegedly found to be preaching extremist content to students at Epping Boys High School.

Premier Mike Baird said the Government would never allow schools to become a setting for extremist ideologies. 

“Our schools should be, and are, havens of tolerance, places where students can explore the reaches of imagination and knowledge,” Mr Baird said.

The Point

New visa rules mean religious teachers wanting to work in Australia will have to speak better English. But is it better to train clerics locally to fill the religious skills shortage?

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