Meeting with Archbishop was to help avoid misunderstanding: DPM

Teo Chee Hean says he was anxious to avoid any misunderstanding between Govt and Catholic Church
October 16, 2012
By Amir Hussain

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THREE days before an anti-Internal Security Act (ISA) rally was held, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean asked to meet Archbishop Nicholas Chia, together with Presidential Council for Religious Harmony Chairman Goh Joon Seng, Mr Teo told the House yesterday, Oct 15.

"I wanted to understand better the context to the Archbishop's letter to the organisers of an organisation which calls itself F8, which was going to stage a political event ... I was anxious to avoid any misunderstanding between the Government and the Catholic Church," said Mr Teo, who is also the Home Affairs Minister.

On the same day as the meeting, Archbishop Chia wrote to civil society group Function 8 - one of the two organisers of the event - to withdraw his earlier letter of support for the rally.

The Archbishop's decision prompted a public exchange of words last month between him, blogger Alex Au, the organisers and the Ministry of Home Affairs - after Mr Au had blogged about what he described as the Government's "arm-twisting" of Archbishop Chia. Mr Au wrote that, based on "second-hand" accounts, the Archbishop withdrew his letter after a lunch with Mr Teo.

In Parliament yesterday, Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC MP Hri Kumar asked Mr Teo whether he had met the head of the Catholic Church before the event, as a supplementary question to Nominated MP Laurence Lien's question on the Government's stance on the separation of religion and politics.

Elaborating on what transpired at the meeting, Mr Teo said: "When we met, I explained my concerns to Archbishop Chia. The Archbishop stated very clearly that the Catholic Church has always maintained the position that it does not wish to be involved in political activities, and that the Church wants to work closely with the Government and does not wish to set itself on a collision path with the Government.

"I was greatly reassured by the Archbishop's comments, as they were consistent with his record of service throughout his 11-year tenure ... He has consistently shown that he values religious harmony and appreciates the importance of separating religion from politics in our local context."

Mr Teo said that it "also became clear from the discussion" that the Archbishop had intended the letter as a private communication to Function 8 and "on reflection, the Archbishop felt that the letter did not accurately reflect his views on the subject, and if used in a manner he did not intend, might inadvertently harm our social harmony".

Mr Teo said Government leaders regularly meet their religious counterparts. There are also established formal and informal channels for religious groups to express their deeply-held views, he added.

Mr Teo said that last year, he had hosted the Archbishop and a small group of Catholic leaders to lunch "so that I could understand better the issues that concern the Catholic community" here. He also visited the Archbishop in hospital when he fractured his leg in August last year.

Mr Teo said: "The Archbishop knows that any time he needs to discuss any sensitive issue with me, he can see me in private. Likewise, I would have no hesitation to share my concerns honestly and openly with him if I felt the need to do so."

In his response to Mr Lien, Mr Teo said that individuals here "are free to exercise their political right as individuals".

However, "once religious organisations get involved in politics, we then run the danger of having ... many religious groups entering into the political arena, or political groups seeking to use religious groups to further their own political agenda", Mr Teo said.