Sir William was speaking at the launch in Sydney of a national social justice statement on racism, prepared by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference.

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The statement condemns the mandatory detention of asylum seekers and the excision of a number of nearby islands from Australia’s migration zone.

It calls on Australians to offer practical help to asylum seekers, by visiting detention centres and by providing free medical care and free legal advice to them.

Sir William says the statement is a powerful reminder of the failure of current government policies and of the need for religious leaders to speak out on the issue.

“By any acceptable measure of Christian morality, we Australians are losing our way in so far as our treatment of refugees or asylum seekers is concerned. The fact that a politically significant or even a majority of Australians might genuinely disagree with the current policies serves only to increase the need for the voice of Christian principle to be raised and heard.”

The Catholic Bishops’ statement also condemns discrimination against Muslim Australians particularly since the Bali bombings and the war in Iraq.

It describes as unfair any tendency to identify terrorism with Islam, saying many Muslim leaders are strong proponents of peace.

The statement also condemns the verbal abuse of Muslim children and the vandalism of mosques, calling on Australians to welcome people of all creeds.

Sir William says anxiety about national security is unfortunately leading to growing cultural and religious intolerance.

He says, in the current climate, religious and political leaders have a moral duty to promote greater harmony in order to combat prejudice.

“Mutual respect and acceptance are currently being subjected to extraordinary pressures in our community. My years as governor-general taught me many things. Perhaps the most important of them was how critical our multiculturalism is to the well being of our nation. For me, multiculturalism means inclusiveness and not division.”

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