By Andrew West

POWERFUL and morally conservative religious leaders and laymen, including Christians, Jews and Muslims, have united to form a lobby group to fight what they say is the growing threat to religious freedom in Australia.

The Ambrose Centre for Religious Liberty will be launched at NSW Parliament House tonight and formally brings together for the first time the leaders of several religious groups.

The centre’s chairman, the Sydney lawyer Rocco Mimmo, said the leaders were increasingly worried that religious vilification laws – such as the ones used in Victoria to prosecute a Pentacostal pastor for inflammatory comments about Islam – would be introduced nationally.

“All of us have concerns, for different reasons, that religious liberty is in danger,” Mr Mimmo told the Herald.

“Anti-vilification laws have a superficial appeal to people but, however inappropriate those comments made by the Victorian pastor, I doubt very much whether they actually incited people to violence.”

The centre’s heavyweight board includes the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell, and the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen. While the men are friends, and have lobbied the state and federal governments on issues such as stem cell research and funding for church schools, they remain deeply divided by church doctrine – so much so that Sydney’s Anglican leaders will not attend ecumenical services if they involve a Catholic mass.

The board also includes the former Nationals leader and deputy prime minister John Anderson; the senior rabbi of Sydney’s Great Synagogue, Jeremy Lawrence; Haset Sali, a Brisbane lawyer and member of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils; the Adelaide academic My-Van Tran, a prominent Buddhist leader; and the Hindu leader Gambhir Watts.

Mr Sali said that as a Muslim, he was worried anti-vilification laws could be used against his faith. He also said the religious leaders were united by a common view on the “sanctity of life”, on issues such as abortion and stem cell research.

While a senior member of the Anglican Church’s Sydney diocese insisted the Ambrose Centre was not an organisation designed to encourage “interfaith dialogue”, and therefore not a break with the diocese’s tradition, other prominent Anglicans disagreed.

Stephen Judd, the author of the diocese’s official history, described Dr Jensen’s involvement as “a very significant step”. “This group is incredibly diverse,” Dr Judd said. “I cannot recall other multifaith involvements of this stature.”

The Ambrose Centre has links with a prominent right-wing foundation in the US, the Action Institute, which describes itself as “an ecumenical think tank dedicated to the study of free-market economics informed by religious faith and moral absolutes”.

Mr Mimmo said the centre did not share the American institute’s embrace of free-market capitalism.

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