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Street preachers: battle of the faiths for Melburnians’ hearts, minds and souls

Australians have been losing their religion over recent decades, census data shows. You wouldn’t know from a weekly gathering of street preachers of different faiths. Kristian Oka Prasetyadi takes a close-up look at this battle of the brands fighting to keep religion alive.

Street preachers: battle of the faiths for Melburnians’ hearts, minds and souls

Banding together: members of Falun Dafa celebrate the religious movement's 32nd birthday in May, 2024, at the State Library of Victoria. Photo: Kristian Oka Prasetyadi

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Every Saturday afternoon in Melbourne, the Victorian State Library forecourt morphs into a stage for free religious expression. The city’s shrine to wisdom becomes a speaker’s corner, a dais for proselytising different faiths on a day most devote to rest and shopping.

On a Saturday in May, just after the autumn rain subsides, the Falun Dafa’s brass band and dancers are celebrating the religious movement’s 32nd anniversary.

Sayid Yusuf, 40, a street preacher from Islamic movement Tamil Nadu Thowheed Jamaath, engages in a dialogue with a Jehovah Witness. Photo: Kristian Oka Prasetyadi

Sayid Yusuf, 40, a street preacher from Islamic movement Tamil Nadu Thowheed Jamaath, engages in a dialogue with a Jehovah Witness. Photo: Kristian Oka Prasetyadi

A stone’s throw away, two southern Indian men, Sayid Yusuf and Munavar Ismail, are standing on the library footpath, holding identical small blue books. Djibreel, Ismail’s 14-year-old son, joins them.

“This Quran is not only for Muslims or Arabs,” says 40-year-old Yusuf as he offers the blue books to passers-by. “It is for the whole of humanity.”

For the two men, who say they are IT consultants on weekdays, it is just another Saturday of street dawah, or preaching the Islamic faith. Ismail, 50, recalls starting street-preaching between 2017 and 2018 as a member of an organisation he initially declined to name.

But the pamphlets the two men give out reveal their membership in Australia Tawheed Jamath, which is a branch of Tamil Nadu Thowheed Jamath (TNTJ), an organisation based in the Indian province of Tamil Nadu. Ismail says thowheed means the oneness of God and religion.

In India, the TNTJ has come under fire from some critics, accused of jeopardising India’s peaceful religious coexistence. In 2016, the TNTJ organised a congregation that denounced variants of Islam other than Sunni as “un-Islamic,” according to Asia-Pacific current affairs magazine, The Diplomat.“We preach the common strand of Islam,” Ismail says, referring to Sunni Islam.

“People didn’t know what Islam is. We hand out free Qurans and pamphlets and explain a little bit about it.”

Street dawah is a good way to “eradicate misconceptions about Islam” among non-Muslims who often associate the religion with terrorism and extremism, Yusuf says, adding they are “more than welcome” to accept the faith.

But Ismail admits not having too much expectation on conversion. Instead, having “a good conversation” to raise awareness of his religion is good enough.

“We have been standing probably 45 minutes now, and so far, we haven’t handed out any Quran,” he says.

The two men preach on the streets of Melbourne at a time when religious non-affiliation in Australia has reached its highest point in 50 years. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), 9.7 million or 38.9 per cent of the population professed no religion in 2021, soaring from 6.7 per cent in 1971.

Munavar Ismail, 50, talks with his son, Djibreel, 14, during a street preaching session. Photo: Kristian Oka Prasetyadi

Munavar Ismail, 50, talks with his son, Djibreel, 14, during a street preaching session. Photo: Kristian Oka Prasetyadi

Between 2011 and 2021, at least 1.1 million people left Christianity, causing a drop in adherents from 61.1 per cent to 43.9 per cent of the population.

Anglicanism suffered the biggest decline, losing 604,900 followers, while 215,900 people left the Catholic faith.

Non-Christian believers bucked this trend over the same period. The number of Muslims almost doubled to 813,400 or 3.2 per cent of the population, while Hinduism almost tripled to 684,000 or 2.7 per cent. The ABS attributed this exponential growth to immigration between 2016-2021 from countries such as India, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh.

State trends tell a similar story. More than a third (39.3 per-cent) of Victoria’s 6.5 million inhabitants had no religious affiliation in 2021 compared to only 7.3 per cent 50 years ago, according to the ABS. Over the period, the number of Christians more than halved from 85.6 per cent to 40.9 per cent.

“God’s wrath”

For 64-year-old Baptist Christian, Stephen, who declines to give his surname, this trend represents “a massive falling-away”.

Stephen, a member of a Christian street preaching community, shows a leaflet on salvation through renunciation of sins. Photo: Kristian Oka Prasetyadi

Stephen, a member of a Christian street preaching community, shows a leaflet on salvation through renunciation of sins. Photo: Kristian Oka Prasetyadi

“I’ve been to Christmas carol services where over 20 carols were about Santa Claus. Not a single mention of Jesus Christ,” says Stephen, who has used a wheelchair for 15 years due to muscular dystrophy.

Stephen has been a member of a street-preaching group called Melbourne Outreach for eight years. Every Saturday, he embarks on a one-hour journey from his house in Melbourne’s southeast to the CBD’s intersection of Swanston and Bourke streets to spread the gospel and leaflets about Jesus.

He says the Bible talks about the present day when “mankind has rejected and is determined to be as offensive to God as they can be” by accepting gay marriage and letting drag queens into preschools.

For that reason, Stephen believes the current generation will face God’s wrath. But he says he will not stop street-preaching because “I’m responsible to God”.

“There’s nothing more important to me than to have a good conversation with someone and basically see the lights go on in their eyes from the truth and the power of God’s word,” he says.

He adds that he does not mind challenging Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Seventh-day Adventists “into questioning the club that they’re joined”.

But Stephen’s efforts, and that of Ismail and Yusuf, may be in vain, according to Professor Andrew Singleton, a religion expert at Deakin University.

“Nothing can be done to stop the religious decline in Australia,” Singleton says.

He argues religious adherence has always been superficial to at least two-thirds of the population surveyed by the ABS, many of whom previously indicated a certain faith, especially Christianity, because it was more socially acceptable, or because those without a religious affiliation were not counted until 1971.

The number of non-believers has since risen continually, particularly after the ABS moved the “No Religion” box from the bottom of the list in 2011 to top in 2016.

“Even something simple like that caused more and more people to say they’re not religious. So, I’d say it represents some kind of cultural shift,” Singleton says.

Australia’s strong economy over decades has driven up household income for many, while changes in trading hours and entertainment options also gives people fewer reasons to be religious.

Singleton says in the 1950s and 1960s, Christian churches were the centre of the community because there was “less to do” as fewer shops and restaurants were open on Sundays.

“But from the 1970s onwards, we’ve become wealthier. Shops were open longer, people have other things to do, and so religion has kinda lost its social importance.”

While Christianity continues declining and non-religious affiliation rising, Singleton acknowledges that recent strong net migration – about one million people moved here between 2017 and 2021 according to the ABS – has enriched Australia’s religious diversity and will improve the nation’s ability to accept differences.

“I think Australia is a good place for religions to come and cohabit with each other,” he says.

“The more you experience people who are not like yourself, the more tolerant you become.”

Citing a study he co-authored in 2018, Singleton adds, “It’s true. Younger Australians who have had more exposure to religious differences are more open-minded than older Australians.”

Munavar Ismail, 50, shows the Qur’ans that he hands out to passers-by during street preaching. Photo: Kristian Oka Prasetyadi

Munavar Ismail, 50, shows the Qur’ans that he hands out to passers-by during street preaching. Photo: Kristian Oka Prasetyadi

Back at the footpath in front of the Victorian State Library forecourt, Yusuf and Ismail attest they never face aggression or violence during street dawah as they never force anyone, especially atheists, to accept their faith.

“The best way is to engage with them in conversation and try to have an open dialogue, so they will understand our position and we understand their position,” Yusuf says.

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