Family shock as teens head to Iraq

Natalie O’Brien, Jonathan Swan [and] Fergus Hunter

Two teenage boys from south-west Sydney have travelled to the Middle East without their parents’ knowledge and are believed to be heading to Iraq to join the fighting.

One of the boys, Abdullah Elmir, who turned 17 earlier this month, told his mother he was “going fishing” before he disappeared from his home in the Bankstown area just over a week ago.

His family said they discovered he had left the country only after Abdullah sent a text message to another family member asking them to tell his mother he had “gone” and did not know his current location. They have since learnt he left with a 16-year-old boy, who they have never met nor heard of, by the name of Feiz.

Abdullah’s family said they are shocked and devastated and want their son brought back home. They believe he has been “brainwashed” and want to know who paid for his air ticket and encouraged him to go.

ASIO and the federal police have since been questioning friends of the family about Abdullah, and who might have given him the money to buy the air ticket and whether he was going to the Middle East to join jihadists.

The Australian government believes there are up to 150 Australians who have joined extremist groups in the Middle East including the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL); and The Sunday Age can reveal they are overwhelmingly coming from New South Wales and Victoria.

According to a senior government source, at least half the people come from NSW, while a “substantial” number come from Victoria, and these states dwarf numbers coming from other states and territories.

Most of the Australians are understood to be fighting with Sunni extremists in the Syrian civil war, while about 10 are known to have travelled to Iraq, joining ISIL, which is surging towards Baghdad with plans to overthrow the Iraqi government.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop describes the phenomenon as the most serious threat to Australia’s domestic security in “some time”. In Parliament last week she said it was “simply chilling” to hear an Australian accented jihadist on a video urging others to join the fighting.

“To put the current situation in perspective: approximately 30 Australians are believed to have engaged with al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan prior to the NATO-led intervention,” she said.

Abdullah’s family and friends said he was a normal teenager who had just finished school and liked X-Box, playing with the family cat and hanging out with his brothers and sisters.

He was very bright and had just finished school.

It is understood the two boys travelled from Sydney to Perth, Malaysia, Thailand and, finally, Turkey. Abdullah contacted his family from Turkey telling them he was going to “cross the border” and they understood he meant he was heading to Iraq.

His mother tried to convince him not to go and was preparing to travel to Turkey to try to bring him back. She contacted the Department of Foreign Affairs immediately to advise them of her plan. But by that time Abdullah is understood to have left Turkey.

“We are devastated that we may never be able to see him again. We wish for his safety and we want the government to help bring him home,” a family member said.

The family’s lawyer, Zali Burrows, said they are concerned that government agencies had known about the boys’ plans but had not stopped the youths from leaving Australia.

“What is concerning is that if the federal police and ASIO had the intelligence, then why did they fail to stop him from departing or fail to stop the boy while he was in Turkey?” Ms Burrows said.

“The family believes that the government knows where their boy is and they just want them to bring him home.”


Lobby group funds mosque fight

Chris Johnston

A far-right, anti-Islam lobby group in Queensland has given up to $10,000 to opponents of the Bendigo mosque to help their campaign.

Restore Australia gave the money to print anti-mosque material. It is a not-for-profit group run by former One Nation candidate Mike Holt, a Vietnam veteran and author, and Charles Mollison, a former lieutenant-colonel who also served in Vietnam. Both men live on the Sunshine Coast.

Mr Holt confirmed the amount, which had been donated to Restore Australia, was given to a group called Stop the Mosque in Bendigo and also to a Victorian chapter of the Patriot Defence League Australia.

Stop the Mosque in Bendigo runs an active anti-Islam Facebook page from Bendigo and Beaufort, near Ballarat. The administrators, Julie Kendall and Monika Evers, did not return calls.

Patriot Defence League Australia, with a fierce anti-Islam agenda, has chapters in most states. Victorian members attended Bendigo council meetings about the mosque wearing T-shirts bearing the group’s insignia.

Mr Holt said Stop the Mosque in Bendigo and the PDLA were “our foot soldiers on the ground”.

“We are not right-wing crazies,” he said. “We are ordinary Australians opposed to the Islamisation of our country.”

The PDLA emerged this week as the group most likely to have tied black balloons on Bendigo buildings and homes, including that of pro-mosque City of Greater Bendigo councillor Mark Weragoda.

A Ballarat spokesman for the group did not deny involvement, but when pressed said: “No comment.”

Restore Australia also administers a sub-group called Islam4Infidels, which is-sues written advice for people or communities wanting to campaign
against mosques.

Mr Holt said Restore Australia shared material and ideology with two groups in Britain: the English Defence League, known for anti-Islamic street protests, and Liberty Great Britain, a new far-right political party.

He said the Bendigo mosque issue had brought previously separate Australian anti-Islam groups together. “We were not united before. But this issue has managed to unite us.”

A planning application for the mosque was passed by a majority of Bendigo councillors last week, but Re-store Australia has paid for a Sydney lawyer often used in anti-mosque hearings, Robert Balzola, to appeal to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal on planning grounds.

Local objectors say the mosque would breach regulations concerning parking, noise and traffic.

If built, the Australian Islamic Mission $3 million mosque will feature two floors, a café and sports hall on vacant land in the east of the city.


Rabbi tapes reveal sex abuse cover-up

Richard Baker [and] Nick McKenzie

Some of Australia’s most senior orthodox Jewish leaders are under investigation for allegedly failing to report multiple instances of child sexual abuse,

The Sunday Age has obtained witness statements and tape recordings from this month’s successful prosecution of a former Bondi [Sydney] Yeshiva authority figure, Daniel Hayman, that indicate senior Jewish leaders failed to act on complaints of abuse and cast doubt over their public statements on
the scandal.

The documents and recordings provide an insight into strongly held views within segments of Australia’s ultra-orthodox Jewish communities that child sexual abuse should not be reported to secular authorities.

New South Wales police and the NSW Ombudsman are examining whether senior rabbis broke the law by failing to report incidents of alleged child sexual abuse at Bondi’s Yeshiva centre to authorities.

Similar investigations are taking place in Melbourne into the failure by leaders of St Kilda’s Yeshiva college to act on allegations of abuse by two former employees who were recently jailed for sexual abuse offences against students.

Under the NSW Ombudsman Act 1974, it is an offence for the leaders of a government and non-government agency to fail to report allegations of child
sexual abuse to the Ombudsman. The head of an agency must also ensure employees report alleged abuse. Institutions such as Catholic schools and
the Yeshiva Centre are bound by that legislation.

A NSW police spokesman confirmed that detectives from Strike Force Bungo had been liaising with the NSW Ombudsman’s investigators “regarding whether there may have been a failure to report incidents of abuse to the Ombudsman”.

The spokesman said detectives had not identified sufficient evidence to take the matter to court but were continuing their inquiries.

Documents and tape recordings obtained by Fairfax Media reveal three senior Sydney rabbinical figures were allegedly told of Hayman’s offending by victims during the 1980s. But none contacted police.

Instead, Hayman was sent to the United States only to return to indecently assault a 14-year-old boy and allegedly molest a 12-year-old girl.

Hayman, 50, this month received a 19-month suspended jail sentence after pleading guilty to aggravated indecent assault of a 14-year-old boy at a youth camp in the late 1980s. Hayman was 24 at the time and working at the Yeshiva-run camp.

Magistrate David Williams said he had to sentence Hayman by applying laws relevant to the time of his offending, adding that Hayman would have been jailed if he had been tried under contemporary laws.

Mr Williams also had to acquit Hayman of an indecent assault offence against a 12-year-old girl because of a legal “oddity”.

Mr Williams said he was bound to apply an old law in place at the time of the incident. Under this law, if there was any possibility Hayman’s offence was more serious than the crime of indecent assault he was charged with, he had to be acquitted.

Witness statements and court testimony reveal several children allegedly approached former senior Yeshiva figure, Rabbi Boruch Lesches, between 1986 and 1989 to report Hayman’s indecent conduct.

One of Hayman’s alleged victims testified last month how he and a group of boys went to the home of Rabbi Lesches in 1986 or 1987 to report Hayman’s
abuse of them.

Another alleged victim told the court how she told Rabbi Lesches, now a senior Chabad leader in New York, in 1989 that Hayman had committed an indecent act on her.

The court testimony contradicts a public statement released by Rabbi Lesches last year in which he said: “I had no knowledge of the alleged charges claimed to have occurred some 25 years ago.”

Rabbi Lesches released the statement after Fairfax Media broadcast a legally recorded telephone conversation in which he admitted knowing of concerns about Hayman’s behaviour and of one case of alleged abuse. But Rabbi Lesches publicly asserted that the complainant against Hayman was about the same age, about 21. The alleged victim dis-cussed in the recorded conversation was almost a decade younger.

Rabbi Lesches also added in the phone conversation his belief that some sexual abuse victims may have “consented” and cautioned against reporting
Hayman to police. He later apologised for these remarks.

A witness statement to police also implicates one of Australia’s most senior Jewish leaders in covering up for Hayman. In a 2011 witness statement, a former Bondi Yeshiva rabbinical college student alleges he told the senior Jewish leader, whom Fairfax Media has chosen not to identify, of Hayman’s alleged offending against two teenage boys. The statement says that after the senior rabbi was told of the incidents, Hayman was sent overseas. The alleged victims were given no counselling and police were not called.

A November 2011 tape recording of a conversation between Hayman and a victim contains admissions of inappropriate conduct.

Hayman told the victim that Rabbi Lesches and the present spiritual head of the Bondi Yeshiva centre, Rabbi Pinchas Feldman, had both spoken to him about his conduct during the mid-to-late 1980s.

“He [Rabbi Feldman] just told me it shouldn’t happen and I should take steps to avoid it,” Hayman said in the recorded conversation. “It was a once-off conversation in his office.”

When reports first emerged last year that police were investigating alleged abuse at the Bondi Yeshiva centre, Rabbi Feldman said: “I do not recall anyone ever coming to me with such a problem. I am shocked to hear that anything of this nature has taken place here.”

Following Fairfax Media’s report of the conversation, Rabbi Feldman’s lawyer threatened to sue.

The Bondi Yeshiva centre later released a statement saying Rabbi Feldman had no recollection of any-one confessing to him their involvement in child sexual abuse.

Fairfax Media has learnt that people who have given evidence against Hayman have been intimidated and vilified within their communities.

A male victim of Hayman’s, who cannot be identified for legal reasons, told Sydney’s Downing Centre Local Court last month that he was “abandoned” and “cast out” by his adoptive family. “The community was more intent on protecting its good name than me,” he said.

Fairfax Media emailed Rabbi Lesches’s son, who last year handled his media comments, for a response but he has not responded.

Know more?


There’s no bigotry in challenging extremism

Muslims should be no more immune to criticism than any other religious group.


“Have not the Islamophobes already won the day when a person dare not speak on controversial matter she cause he is Muslim?” asked Simon Longstaff on Twitter last week.

That was a very strange rhetorical question in the circumstances. He was commenting on the fact that Uthman Badar, spokesman for the radical Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, had had his invitation withdrawn to speak at the Sydney Opera House on the proposition that “honour killings are morally justified”.

Is Longstaff serious? Does he really believe this is a debate worth having? Does he really believe that horror at so-called “honour killings” is Islamophobic?

Suppose it was suggested that there be a public debate on the proposition that “wife-beating by white males is perfectly OK”.

Would Longstaff agree this was a topic that called for debate? Would he denounce those who rejected any such debate as exhibiting “aggressive or drunken white male-ophobia”?

Let’s get a little real. If there is a controversial topic worthy of debate regarding Islam and women, it is surely the question: “Can open debates, in which Islamic traditions are criticised, be conducted with-out Islamists threatening violence to all concerned?”

Such criticism is not Islamophobia, any more than criticism of child sexual abuse within the Christian churches is “Christianophobia”. And Badar is hardly in a position where he “dare not speak on controversial matters”. He freely does so all the time without the slightest hindrance.

It’s high time we got this Islamophobia thing sorted out. Islam is a religion with a long history, riddled with contradictions and conflicts. In recent decades some of its more wild-eyed proponents have been on the warpath, determined to establish whole new caliphates. But even among those who are not jihadists in this sense, there are practices that are, to say the least, controversial.

Neither of those two statements is itself controversial and neither is Islamophobic. But there is a fundamental point at issue that goes beyond them. Islam, merely because it is a religion, can no more claim immunity from criticism or rejection than any other religion, be it Catholicism, Orthodox Judaism, Mormonism or Jainism. It is, however, in our time, more violently resistant than most to both criticism and rejection.

If I state that I am not a Muslim, and that there is no possibility of my ever becoming one, that is not Islamophobia. It has exactly the same status as declaring it is unthinkable to me that I could ever become a Biblical literalist or a flat-earther. If I am a Muslim already, however, and come out with the statement that I am renouncing Islam, I can find myself in deep doo-doo.

In between, there is the terrain on which non-Muslims or liberal Muslims criticise old practices and bigotry or violent jihad. These criticisms are too glibly dismissed as Islamophobia by the “politically correct” and can lead to threats of violence by Islamists.

Some years ago I was asked by academics at the University of Melbourne to help draw up a list of speakers for a conference on Islam, Christianity and tolerance. I urged that Ibn Warraq be invited. He is a former Muslim who, like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, has written courageously of the extraordinary threats that confront apostates from Islam. His books Why I am not a Muslim (1995),What the Koran Really Says (2002) and the edited volume of testimonies Leaving Islam (2003) are landmark studies in the debate over the nature and future of Islam in a multicultural world.

What was the response? A staff member, who happened to be from an Islamic background, exclaimed heatedly: “Inviting him would be a disaster! That man is a fanatic!”

I was stunned at the time and still remain incredulous, I would have thought that such a voice was indispensable to building a society in which people can freely choose whether or not Islam holds any appeal for them? under a secular law that constrains Islamic fervour in the same way and for the same reasons it has constrained Christian fervour.

So here is a topic for Simon Longstaff, the St James Ethics Centre and the Sydney Opera House to hold a public debate on, by all means inviting Uthman Badar to contribute: Those who speak out about abuses under Islam are every bit as deserving of our recognition and protection as religious dissenters in the old Catholic era or human rights dissidents under Communist régimes.

Let Mr Badar speak, by all means, on behalf of Hizb ut-Tahrir. We would be all ears, I’m sure.

No sensible person wants to inflame phobias; but no self-respecting citizen of a free society should bow to intimidation by self-styled “militants” or affect a craven piety in the face of unrepentant sectarian bigotry of the Hizb ut-Tahrir variety.

Paul Monk is an author, former senior intelligence analyst and commentator on public and international affairs


Mosque Former One Nation figure behind protest Anti-Islamic groups funding Bendigo fight

Aisha Dow [and] Rania Spooner

Bendigo has become a rallying point for a loosely affiliated network of right-wing and anti-Islamic groups providing cash and support for the fight
to block the city’s first mosque.

The Bendigo campaign, which included the spread of black balloons, is just the latest in a string of challenges to the development of Islamic schools and prayer centres across Australia that have been linked to a handful of political groups and individuals.

Former Queensland One Nation candidate Mike Holt, the chief executive of non-profit organisations Restore Australia and Islam4Infidels, says his groups raised the money to hire a Sydney-based lawyer to fight the mosque proposal.

“They use the mosques as a centre for jihad. These things are not like the tea and coffee churches,” Mr Holt said.

This week Restore Australia’s founder Charles Mollison will travel to Bendigo to meet locals.

Another lobby group, the anti-Islamic Q Society, held a meeting in Bendigo on 11 May to talk to locals about how the mosque would affect their community and how to fight it.

Mr Holt, who is based on the Sunshine Coast, is also acting as a spokesman for the “Concerned Citizens of Bendigo”. The group claims to be local, but its members have refused to identify themselves.

“We don’t give interviews because of security,” an anonymous administrator of the “Stop the Mosque in Bendigo” group told Fairfax Media.

The Concerned Citizens of Bendigo website has a private URL, but has been created by the same web design firm that created the Restore Australia website.

Mr Holt last year took responsibility for the distribution of “Beware! Halal foods funds terrorism” stickers in Queensland, which were branded “offensive, grotesque and designed to inflame hatred” by the state’s Multicultural Affairs Minister.

The former IT business owner hired Sydney lawyer and prominent Christian Robert Balzola to challenge the Bendigo mosque’s planning permit application.

“We’re providing a lot of financial help and other help there [in Bendigo],” Mr Holt said, although he would not say exactly how much cash had been raised. “It’s a good amount of money,” he said.

In 2012 Mr Balzola represented a group called the Concerned Citizens of Canberra in their fight to block the development of a mosque in Gungahlin.

He also previously acted for a residents’ group that moved to block an Islamic school in south-west Sydney.

Mr Balzola would not confirm whether he had been formally engaged to represent the Concerned Citizens of Bendigo.

On the weekend he spoke at a Catch the Fire Ministries event in Sydney, which was also attended by the Defence Force Conservative Action Network’s
Bernard Gaynor, an outspoken campaigner whose organisation also filed an objection to the Bendigo mosque.

The objection, which was posted on the DEFCAN website, argues the Bendigo mosque would be contrary to ensuring peace and good order in the city.

There were 254 objections submitted to the council and of those 171 cited the influence of Islam and its association with violence and terrorism as their grounds for objection, according to council minutes.

Although the local community appears to be receiving substantial outside support, the majority of the objections lodged, 203, were from people who reported that they lived in the Greater Bendigo region.

Spokesman for the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, Keysar Trad, said it was disappointing outside groups had been trying to import “hate” into the Bendigo community.

He said the Muslim community had been monitoring the Bendigo development with “some amusement”, but also concern the divisive debate would “take Australia backwards”.

“It really breaks our heart. You sit there thinking the people who [hold these anti-Islamic views] could be a potential teacher . . . if these people have these terrible negative views they are likely to discriminate against our children.”


Labor MP, Greens senator in joint bid to get euthanasia bill through

Dan Harrison

Labor MP Alannah MacTiernan and Greens Senator Richard Di Natale will co-sponsor legislation to legalise euthanasia across Australia.

Ms MacTiernan, a former state MP in Western Australia, said the matter could not be left to state and territory governments. “This is something that should be a standard for all Australians,” she told Fairfax Media.

Speaking in Parliament earlier on Monday [23 June], Ms MacTiernan said politicians had been “far too timid” on the delicate issue, despite polls showing strong public support for change to allow people to be legally assisted to die. She called on supporters of change to make their views known to politicians so Parliament could resolve the issue “once and for all”.

Senator Di Natale, a medical doctor, has drafted a bill that would allow a terminally ill person to access drugs to end their life. Under the proposal, the person’s condition would have to be verified by two medical practitioners, and the person would have to undergo a mental health assessment to ensure they were of sound mind.


Secular and religious progressives can work together - Conservative Christians' influence is losing ground to liberal thinking.


People tend to think of Christian politics as con­servative. They identify defining issues as abor­tion and gay marriage, but there is a long tradition of fighting for social justice and progressive causes, from slavery to Pope Leo's 19th-century defence of unions, to the civil rights movement, and now asylum seekers.

Of course Christians have been found on both or many sides of these issues, which is hardly sur­prising given the size of the con­stituency and the complexity of the issues. But media coverage today tends to focus on the religious right, whether suspicion of Prime Minister Tony Abbott's Catholic inspiration or the influence of the Australian Christian Lobby.

In the United States, where the divide between progressive and conser­vative wings of the church is much sharper, the religious right and the Tea Party dominate discussion, partly because they have far more money and partly because of their influence on secular politics, which seems ever-more firmly entrenched.

But, according to a new report by the respected Brookings Insti­tute, which also has lessons for Australia, the tide is about to turn. The most important factor is demographic, says the report Faith in Equality: Economic Justice and the Future of Religious Progressives: only 49 per cent of religious con­servatives are under 49, compared with 66 per cent of progressives. "What's clear is that the religious right is not the wave of the future," the report says.

Of course, it's not clear to what extent religion in any guise is the wave of the future, in the US or Australia. It is certainly not going to disappear but it is going to be increasingly diverse, and it must survive secularist attempts to remove its voice in the political arena. In the US, according to the Brookings Institution, young adults identify religion with the Re­publican Party, intolerance and ho­mophobia, and distance themselves. In Australia, the churches are often criticised for demanding special political priv­ileges, such as legal exemptions from discrimination laws, and for blocking gay marriage, abortion and stem cell research, while the clergy sexual abuse crisis has greatly vitiated their moral author­ity.

All these perceptions are superfi­cial and flawed, not least because Christians cover the gamut of opin­ions, but the churches have not worked hard enough to rebut them. As a result, even though religious progressives are at the forefront of many battles for social justice, secular progressives are still suspicious of them.

Thanks to the federal budget, that may be changing. The budget has led to widespread concerns among the Australian public about rising in­equality, the loss of the fair go as a guiding principle and the break­down of the social contract.

Agreement on issues of economic justice may inspire the sort of link between religious and secular progressives that both sides have hitherto been wary of. Both will have to be flexible and accept that an alli­ance on social welfare or the envir­onment need not imply agreement on abortion or gay marriage. The Brookings report says growing con­cerns about fairness and equality, the rising influence of Pope Francis, and the capacity of religious progressives to build bridges between religious and secular groups will combine to improve the status of religious progressives.

It says religious progressives are too diverse to have the same cohes­ive force as conservatives but will remain essential to movements working for the poor, the marginal­ised and even the middle class who are increasingly economically squeezed at a time of rising inequal­ity.

Pope Francis's emphasis on social justice, demanding the Catholic Church be "a poor church for the poor" has put its social mission at the heart of religious debate, and regalvanised the church in the West (it never lost that emphasis in most of the Third World).

What progressives on both sides of the religious divide share is a commitment to the common good, equality and welfare support that they believe the Coalition government is trying to jettison.

They see this as a justice issue, not charity, and reject the apparent attempt of Treasurer Joe Hockey to drive a wedge between ordinary Australians and welfare recipients by saying the former work more than a month a year to support the latter.

It would be a mistake, however, to identify religious conservatives entirely with political conservatives. In fact they often share many progressive concerns. Few organisations are more conservative than the Salvation Army, yet few do more to help those in need, and few are more highly regarded by ordinary Australians. Ministers of all denominations are used to a knock on the door from the desperate, and to providing some sort of help.

The Brookings Institute says: "The single greatest asset of the faith-based movement for economic justice is the work religious people do every day in serving the poor."

Loose coalitions of secular and religious progressives are already working together, notably on asylum seeker and environmental concerns. Watch this space.

Barney Zwartz, a former religion editor of The Age, is now a senior fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity.


Who wins when two freedoms collide?

For a moment it appeared Elise Chapman, one of the nine councillors on the Greater Bendigo City Council, was auditioning to replace Red Symons in his role as the resident nay-sayer on Hey Hey It’s Saturday. “It must be noted I’m not a fan of many things,” she said last week. “I’d not like to live next door to a cemetery, nightclub, hotel, landfill, abattoir, train station -the list goes on.”

But it was her first nay that placed her squarely in the centre of Bendigo’s fractured social lines: “I wouldn’t want to live near a mosque. Would you?”

Cr Chapman was not alone in voting against planning approval for the city’s first mosque. Fellow councillor Helen Leach argued: “Maybe [the protesters] are looking at the sectarian problems in other capital cities in Australia, and are concerned perhaps that may come to Bendigo.”

The Age is delighted that the remaining seven councillors were not swayed by such arguments and approved the $3 million project.

It is easy to dismiss the arguments of Councillors Chapman and Leach, and of those in Bendigo who protested against the mosque for similar reasons, as being founded on ignorance. Our major cities are not driven by sectarian hatreds, and Islam is not a warrior code that preaches death to all unbelievers. A mosque is a beautiful place, with the same rejuvenating qualities of a church, synagogue or temple: they are places of communal celebration, and the contemplation of shared beliefs that transcend each individual’s daily concerns.

What the debate in Bendigo this past week has demonstrated is the continuing need for education, and the clear imperative to build bridges between communities. We have to accept, as Syria and Iraq degenerate further into civil war, and our own government considers ways of curbing the threat that may be posed by Australian extremists fighting in those countries if they wish to return here, that many in our community have no personal connections to remind them of the fundamental strength of our multi-cultural and multi-faith society.

The Muslim community in Bendigo can take heart from the clear-headed decision-making of its council, and a public rally on Saturday that featured multi-coloured balloons as a direct response to black ones that had appeared in a number of places earlier in the week. Therein lies a greater concern, as revealed by The Age today, that individuals or groups such as the Q Society, which describes itself as “Australia’s leading Islam-critical movement”, have become involved in the issue. Their motivation is one of division and the alienation of a part of our community, and their actions must be exposed and their misinformation challenged at every opportunity.

It is reassuring to see community leaders reacting in definitive terms. Bendigo’s federal member of Parliament, Lisa Chesters, has challenged Cr Chapman over the responsibility that comes with being a community leader. She made the point that Australian citizenship ceremonies clearly emphasise freedom of both speech and religion. “As one of our community’s elected representatives, I am proud to stand up for these values. They define who we are as a nation and as a community.” Police assistant commissioner Jack Blayney, whose responsibilities include Bendigo, has also written in the local newspaper that his officers will be alert at any public event: “Make no mistake; we will investigate racially motivated crimes. Our thinking is simple: if you howl abuse in public places you are not only a fool, you are a menace and will be charged.”

It may not have wished for the role, but Bendigo has now become a golden example of how Australia embraces its diversity and fosters harmony for all its citizens.


Religion versus the sport blockbuster

The AFL Commission has controversially approved the scheduling of football matches on Good Friday. A sacrilege, a miracle or a goal for multiculturalism? Damon Young and Jill Stark take aim.

Why the fuss over the AFL and Good Friday? Are other public holidays similarly off limits? (Anzac Day isn’t? So is this about specifically Christian sensitivities rather than solemnity and national occasions themselves?)

With Christmas more of a multibillion-dollar festival of consumerism these days than a Christian celebration, Good Friday is arguably the most sacred of all religious holidays. Unlike other public holidays, such as Australia Day, the Queen’s Birthday or Labour Day, there is almost an absolute retail shutdown, lending weight to the sense of spiritual solemnity. Religious leaders have described the move to play footy as a triumph of commercialisation that would trash the cultural importance of a day they feel is the “turning point of all human history”. Expressing his displeasure, Bishop Philip Huggins of the Anglican diocese of Melbourne said: “No doubt if the marketers believed they could sell it, there would be AFL at 3 a.m. on Christmas Day in Madagascar.”

Is the churches’ disapproval of footy on Good Friday a fear of keeping people from attending church, or more about economic activity on a solemn day?

Fewer Australians are going to church, and for some Victorians the blood and chanting of footy will replace the blood and chanting of holy services. No wonder the churches are put out. But their gripes are more than a cynical ploy for market share. For many churchgoers, the community encourages faith and charity, and overcomes loneliness.

As for buying tickets and pies on a holy day, the point is not just the consumerism itself, it’s that yet another chance for quiet reflection is lost. “Business as usual” can stop us asking the big questions about our lives. Having said this, many Victorians with an interest in serious thinking will try to find it in the football; in debates about fairness, duty, loyalty, community and so on, which continue every season. Sport needn’t be stupid or superficial.

What about the “rights” of football fans, many of whom have a religious-like fervour about their team and the game. Should they be considered in the balance?

Fans can be devoted and deluded. This might seem like faith, but it doesn’t make footy religious. Foot-ball, like most sports, can prompt ethical reflection on issues like drug use, commercialisation, and virtues like courage and loyalty. But fandom has very few ethical guidelines, commands or customs. And it lacks the transcendence common to mainstream religions like Christianity. Aussie rules is “religious” only in a metaphorical way.

The question of “rights” makes it seem like a profound conflict of interests; like freedom of religion is up for grabs either way. The people of the book versus the people of the ball. This simply isn’t true. Victorians will still be at liberty to believe in Christ’s death and resurrection, and worship together in church. It just forces believers to reflect on their values. Those who need the service can, like some Jews on the Sabbath, stay away from the oval or screen. Others can watch the game and, like poet Emily Dickinson, keep the Sabbath at home.

Does the linking of the Good Friday charity appeal with the newly scheduled game get around the theological or moral problem?

For some, perhaps. But church service and consumer charity are not the same thing. Participating in the common worship of God might include charity, but it is more about transcendent reverie, moral reflection and community than raising money. The point is not that the Good Friday appeal is a bad thing, but that it is not what Good Friday services are chiefly for. Both might make participants feel good, but not for the same reasons. Put simply, the Good Friday Appeal is, for some traditional Christians, no “get out of guilt free” card.

How is this handled by other sporting codes?

One of the arguments for football on Good Friday is that it is nonsensical for the AFL to cling to a conservative tradition no longer observed by other sporting codes, both in Australia and overseas. Peter Gordon, president of the Western Bulldogs, argues there are deeply religious regions of Italy where soccer is played on the day, and that NFL games are even scheduled in America’s Bible belt. At home, the NRL held its first rugby league match on Good Friday in 1993, with three matches played this year. Soccer, arguably the AFL’s greatest competitor for the sports fan’s dollar, held a Good Friday A-League game between Melbourne Victory and Sydney this year. Perhaps the lack of controversy about that says more about the AFL’s historical position as a community leader on social issues than the religious persuasions of either code’s fans.

So, when will we see the first game; and will it be between the Saints and the Demons?

The AFL Commission has agreed in principle to games being played on Good Friday, with AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan signalling two Good Friday matches, one outside Victoria, could be held as early as next season. With money-spinning blockbuster matches on ANZAC Day and the Queen’s Birthday
already a yearly fixture for powerhouse clubs such as Collingwood and Essendon, the smaller clubs have the most compelling argument to be given a guernsey. North Melbourne has lobbied the longest for the game, and is most likely to match up against the Western Bulldogs. Sydney and Gold Coast have
also pushed their case in recent years.

Jill Stark is a senior reporter. Damon Young is a philosopher, and the author of How to Think About Exercise.


Worried about Bendigo mosque? Join the Q

Patrick Hatch

The anti-Islam group that brought controversial Dutch politician Geert Wilders to Australia has emerged as a key force behind protests against the building of a mosque in Bendigo.

The goldfields city has faced a surge in anti-Islamic sentiment following last week’s approval of its first mosque. An anonymous group tied black balloons to the house of a local councillor who supported the successful planning application - meant as a warning for those who supported the project.

The Facebook group, “Stop the Mosque in Bendigo,” has had nearly 8000 “likes” and carries material targeting councillors who supported the mosque as “traitors”.

It has now emerged that the Q Society, which describes itself as “Australia’s leading Islam-critical movement”, organised a meeting in Bendigo on 11 May to advise residents how to campaign to stop the mosque. The two-hour meeting was led by Q Society’s president, Debbie Robinson, and Andrew Horwood, the group’s head of media and public relations. Gavin Boby, from Britain’s Law and Freedom Foundation, also spoke at the meeting on video link.

The event, which was attended by about 100 people, was advertised with pamphlets describing Islam as “totalitarian ideology” which brings violence, misogyny, homophobia and economic stagnation wherever it spreads.

Mr Horwood said the Q Society’s role was simply to provide information and leave it up to the local community to take action.

“We offered advice about how Islam is structured and what the effect of the mosque will be in Bendigo,” he said. “We recommended to those involved to write letters to the council and to phone councillors and to become more involved in their community and just spread the message that Islam isn’t good for Australia and a mosque would not be good for Bendigo.”

The Q Society, which has about 1000 members in Australia, organised and funded the 2013 Australian visit by Dutch anti-Islam MP Geert Wilders and, in March, organised an event, called the International Symposium on Liberty and Islam in Australia, in Melbourne.

In 2011, the group organised a petition against Muslims using a community centre in Alma Road, St Kilda East, for Friday prayer. It has also campaigned against halal certification schemes, which it calls a “hidden Islamic tax”.

Bendigo resident Michelle Goldsmith said she was given an anti-Islam pamphlet produced by the Q Society at a rowdy council meeting on Wednesday [18 June], when the $3 million mosque was approved by a vote of 7-2.

The pamphlet, headed “A mosque is not like a church or a temple”, says mosques “are a seat of government, a command centre, a court, and in some cases used as military training centres and arms depots”.

“We need our politicians and lawmakers to recognise Islam as a political entity,” the pamphlet States. “We need to monitor hate speech in mosques given the known seditious nature of Islamic teachings in some mosques.”

Ms Goldsmith said she was shocked by the material in the pamphlets, which several people were handing out at the meeting. “It confirmed my suspicions that these people were being fed hate speech by an outside group. I thought, I’m sure Bendigo’s not like this’, and this was proof.”

The local Stop the Mosque in Bendigo group has remained nameless and faceless throughout the community debate. But Mr Horwood insisted the group was real and not a front for the Q Society.

“They are definitely locals; it’s not outside people,” he said. “No one from that organisation actually wants to speak. They just feel so threatened. They see the media as distorting what they say. They’re scared of that.”

Mr Horwood said the instances of black balloons appearing at properties belonging to mosque supporters were disappointing and inappropriate and his
group was not involved.

Local state MP Jacinta Allan said it was totally unacceptable for people outside of Bendigo to try to swoop in and divide the community.

“Bendigo has a proud history of tolerance and diversity dating back to the gold rush era, and we’ll work hard to preserve and build upon it,” she said.

Bendigo councillor Elise Chapman, one of two councillors who voted against the mosque, said the community had lost focus on what the debate is really about - hundreds of people being denied the chance to speak against the planning application.

“All objectors have a right to object without being labelled as racists and bigots,” she said.

With Steve Lillebuen


Syndicate content