Now Churches Are Targeted

Nick Leys and Dan Box, Australian (Sydney), Dec. 15, 2005

Four Churches in Sydney’s southwest have been attacked in 24 hours as the city’s riots spread from race to religion.

A community hall linked to a Uniting church was burned to the ground early yesterday, carol-singers were spat on and church buildings peppered with gunfire.

In response, members of the Arab Christian and Arab Muslim communities have called for a curfew for all Lebanese youths over the weekend.

Police believe the attack on the hall, in the suburb of Auburn, was intended to destroy the Uniting church next door, while nearby StThomas’s Anglican Church, which has a primarily Chinese congregation, had all its front windows smashed. Three of the attacks were on churches within minutes of each other. The night before, Molotov cocktails were used in an attack on an Anglican church in Macquarie Fields in the city’s far southwest.

Arab Christians have suggested the attacks on churches may have been meant as a violent attempt to “shame” the city’s Lebanese Christian community into supporting Lebanese Muslims in the race-hate war, which began as a battle against young white males over use of suburban beaches.

Community leaders said Lebanese youths should not venture out after 9pm on Friday and Saturday, and should stay home all day on Sunday.

“Those who violate the curfew will be doing so in defiance of their faith, of the law and their community leaders. We are all united in opposing violence,” Lebanese Muslim Association leader Ahmad Kamaledine said.

Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen welcomed the call for a curfew. “We must remember that it is first of all in the home that we learn to respect and care for others,” he said.

“So I trust that all parents will join these community leaders in encouraging their own young people to exhibit mature and thoughtful respect for other people at all times.”

Despite the call for a curfew, the state Government, police, community and religious leaders were bracing for a violent clash between opposing ethnic groups over the weekend.

The church attacks prompted NSW Premier Morris Iemma to yesterday assign extra police to monitor places of worship.

Mr Iemma said police would pay special attention to churches, schools and church halls. “We have to be on guard for this, and these hooligans and criminals will not destroy the fabric of our society,” he said.

A heavy police presence was again ordered last night as the suburb of Cronulla—the scene of race-related violence on Sunday—began a second night of lock-down and police roadblocks.

During a tour of the command post set up in the Sydney Police Centre to co-ordinate the crisis, Deputy Commissioner Andrew Scipione told Mr Iemma the situation was being treated as if it were a terror attack.

“We are running the same command and control centre as we would for a terrorist situation,” Mr Scipione said.

Elsewhere in Sydney, two men were attacked in separate incidents by men wielding bats and golf clubs and asking their victims if they were Australian.

Steve Stanton, a spokesman for the Maronite Catholic Church in Australia, said he thought the shooting outside a carol service in South Auburn on Monday night was the responsibility of a “very small minority” of fanatics within the wider Muslim community.

“There is also a view that it will have been done with a view to shaming the Lebanese for not standing united,” he said.

Amjad Mehboob, head of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, said he believed the violence had been committed by an extremist fringe of the Muslim community. “I wish we knew who they were. I wish we could engage with them so we can find out what their beliefs are, so we can deal with them,” he said.

“This is something that started out as a minor scuffle between some youths and a couple of life-savers that has suddenly become an issue of racism and religion. Buildings can be rebuilt, but the damage this is doing to our community is extremely deep.”

Reverend Glenys Biddle, of the Uniting church in Auburn, said the destroyed hall had been a important part of the local Tongan community. “For them, they have lost not only a physical building but a sense of fellowship,” she said. “A lot of memories have also been lost for Anglos, Tongans and people of all sorts of cultures.”

Shafiq Khan, the principal of the al-Faisal College next door, said Christians and Muslims had always worked amicably, and the fire—coupled with the fear it may promote—was a loss for both religions. “This is a crime against peace, the community and the country; a crime against harmony and against our children, who used the hall,” he said.

Television and sporting celebrities and leaders from Sutherland Shire and the Islamic community will hold a meeting this morning, brokered by local MP Bruce Baird, to try to settle their differences.

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