Growing numbers of Australians are finding love across the religious divide, but not everyone is happy about it. Sarah MacDonald investigates how attitudes towards interfaith relationships are changing in Australia.
When Lyz Menounos met Adam three years ago, she was smitten. Their relationship quickly developed into something serious, but there was just one problem: Lyz came from a traditional Greek Orthodox Christian family, and Adam was Muslim.
Interfaith relationships are becoming increasingly common in Australia, as the children of the migrants that came to Australia when the White Australia Policy was abolished grow up and find partners outside their parents’ religious groups.
However, attitudes towards interfaith relationships are proving slow to change. A recent study found that almost 60 percent of Australians would be concerned if a family member married a Muslim.
Dr Siham Yahya, a clinical psychologist who counsels interfaith couples and has also written extensively on the topic, said that she is unsurprised by the findings.
“I was hoping that I would find a difference [in attitudes] in my research, but not really – people are open to it if it’s dating, but when it comes to marriage they have to consider their parents, especially if it’s a religious family,” she said.
The single biggest issue faced by interfaith couples is often dealing with family members who ‘get in the way’ of the relationship, Yahya said.
Throughout her career, she has seen couples take extreme measures to deal with opposition from their families.
“One couple was really interesting. This guy was married, he’s got two kids, and his entire family doesn’t know about that part of his life. They live in a different country,’ she said.
‘He’s got a wife and kids. He’s Jewish; she’s Muslim. Her family know but his family know nothing – they think he’s single.”
Menounos, 24, said that when she first started dating Adam she had concerns that her family would not accept the relationship.
“They can be really judgemental, like typical Greek Orthodox type parents,” she said.
“I knew that once they got to know my partner, they would see that he’s not just a stereotypical Muslim person with a long beard who prays five times a day – but that’s probably what my parents expected.”
Brooke Bevilacqua, 23, met her partner three years ago. Bevilacqua is Christian and her partner is Jewish Orthodox, and she said that it has not always been an easy divide to cross.
“A lot of my good friends – their Jewish beliefs are very strong. Many of my friends are not accepting of it at all, regardless of whether or not [the partner] is willing to convert.”
Bevilacqua said that she will eventually have to convert to Judaism in order to be accepted within the Jewish community.
“The Christian attitude is changing – we’re more willing to say goodbye to our religion for love, but I don’t know if the Jewish culture is so willing to change. They’re a little bit stuck in this community and they’re not so willing to accept outsiders unless that outsider is willing to convert and be a part of what they believe in,” she said.
Conversion – where one partner renounces their own religion and converts to that of their partner – is an option that many interfaith couples consider.
In some situations, conversion may be religiously required – for example, although Muslim men can marry outside their faith, Muslim women can only do so if their husband converts to Islam.
However, Dr Yahya said that issues can arise when one partner is unable to accept the other as they are. In her experience, marriages and long-term partnerships were most successful when each partner respected and accepted the other’s religion.
Ari Levy, 19, is Jewish and unwilling to even date outside the Jewish community in case it led to something more serious – regardless of whether his partner was willing to convert.
“Conversion is still a very good thing to do, and it shows devotion, but it’s still not the same,” he said.
“How you are brought up is very influential. It depends on the person, but I would rather have someone that was brought up Jewish and has that family background.”
Levy said that many of his friends feel the same way, and that attitudes are unlikely to change anytime soon.
Like Bevilacqua, Menounos sees conversion as the ultimate way forward for her relationship with Adam.
However, as Adam is the less religious of the two, he will convert to Christianity so that the pair can be married in a church and at some point raise their children as Christians.
Menounos believes that Adam’s willingness to convert is the only reason her parents have accepted the relationship.
“I think in the larger sense it is going to take a lot more for attitudes to change – my parents are okay with it because they think that my boyfriend will eventually become Christian, but in the long run the actual underlying attitudes have not changed,” she said.
Not all couples decide to follow the path of conversion, however.
Throughout their 20 years of marriage, Abil Elyassih, 43, and Farage Esber, 56, have both kept their separate faiths. Elyassih is Muslim and Esber is Christian Orthodox.
Their decision was not an easy one. Elyassih’s family refused to accept her relationship with a Christian, and eventually, the couple was forced to elope.
Esber said that acceptance of each other’s different faiths has been central to the strength of their relationship.
“Religion is supposed to teach people to care about each other, to respect each other. If people want to have a conflict with someone else because of religion, it means they failed their religion. They don’t really understand their religion.”
Elyassih and Esber’s two children were both raised Christian Orthodox. Despite the happiness that she has with her husband, Elyassih said that she hopes her children can find partners within the Christian faith.
“It would be very hard for my daughter to be accepted, unless she converts and changes her religion. Otherwise, she will never be accepted because that’s the mentality of a lot of Muslim families.
“The family is welcoming at the beginning, but when it comes to the concept in the end Muslims are Muslims and Christians are Christians. That’s not my view, but that’s how it is,” she said.
Dr Yahya agrees that as things stand in Australia, pursuing an interfaith relationship may not always be worth the trouble it can bring to families.
“It’s not an easy way, especially when the families don’t accept it. As it is, relationships are hard – why make it even more difficult?”
However, with more Australians choosing partners from different faiths, she is hopeful that attitudes will begin to change with time.
“Nobody can control falling in love, or having that attachment towards somebody – and then you start the journey of whether or not this is something you can do.”
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