Here in Melbourne we have been working very hard to avoid the importation of tensions from overseas. The Jewish Christian Muslim Association of Australia, of which I am a founding member, exists to pour oil on just such troubled waters. Our president, Sheikh Riad Galil, recently (and somewhat bravely, I think, and with great integrity) attended the Coptic liturgy celebrated by Bishop Suriel in St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral, highlighting the plight of Copts in Egypt at this time.
The next day, our JCMA “Super Sunday Seminar”, on the topic of “Sorry is the hardest word” met at the Mary McKillop Hall at the Dallas Catholic Parish (in the same vicinity as the Assyrian Church in this story). We had about 90 people there, including about 40 Muslims, and 20 Jews. Our meeting, which lasted from 2pm to 9pm discussing repentance and forgiveness in our three Abrahamic traditions, was rather surprised to discover that that evening in the Church right next door (sharing the same kitchen and foyer) the Syrian Catholic community were celebrating their mass and feast for the Festival of the Dormition of our Lady! Needless to say, there were some strange looks through the glass doors at our gathering, with hijabs and yamakas in great abundance (not to mention Sheikh Riad’s evening “call to prayer”).
Seeing the strange looks from the Syrian Catholics next door, I went in to talk to them to let them know who we were. I introduced myself as an employee of the Archdiocese and said that JCMA had been formed 10 years ago to promote harmony and understanding among the three abrahamic religions here in Australia so that the tensions and disagreements experienced between our communities overseas would not be imported here. They were a little suspicious – and perhaps thought that we were a bit gullible – but nevertheless, they wished us well in our endeavour.
I am afraid that the situation in this news story to which I have linked above does show a great deal of insensitivity on the part of the Council. We need to work hard here in Melbourne to build trust between communities, but in many cases we will need to be starting from scratch. I can fully understand – although I regret – the objections of our Assyrian brothers and sisters. I can fully understand the aspirations of the Muslim community in Coolaroo. There is an opportunity here for mediation. Perhaps JCMA can play a role. Perhaps the good relations between the Victorian Council of Churches and the Islamic Council of Victoria can play a role. Perhaps we can demonstrate to these traumatised and understandably fearful communities that there is nothing to fear from one another here in Melbourne.
But perhaps too the Hume City Council should have realised what a delicate situation they were dealing with, and used the resources of their excellent Hume Interfaith Network to facilitate some dialogue on the matter.