A sad and avoidable situation

This is a sad and avoidable situation.

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.

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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2 Responses to A sad and avoidable situation

  1. Tony says:

    It’s a really difficult situation and may take generations of careful handling. I’ve had some experience with Christian Sudanese who, I suspect, will never trust any Muslims. Mind you there are also some remarkable individuals whose capacity for forgiveness is truly humbling.

  2. Peregrinus says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with most of what you say here, David, but I’m not quite sure about “a great deal of insensitivity on the part of the Council”. If this is a reference to the fact that the Council granted planning permission for the mosque, I suspect they were advised that they had no choice but to do so. You and I are free to act capriciously or on a whim, but the Council must act according to law, and if the planning application complied with zoning requirements, building regulations, etc, etc then there may simply have been no basis on which they could properly refuse it.

    If it’s a reference to the riot police, the dogs, the pepper spray and so forth well, yes, that may have been insensitive, but if so the insensitivity is down to the police, not the Council.

    And perhaps the media have a certain responsibility here too. The report you cite has quotes from a member of the church congregation, and from a local resident, both opposing the development, but no quote from any member of the congregation seeking to build the mosque, or from any supporter of the development. Only telling one side of the story is an insensitivity all on its own.

    The background to this is that the church has been there since 2009, but the adjacent site has been owned by the Islamic congregation, and earmarked for an eventual mosque, since 1992. In other words, when the church decided on its location, they knew that this issue would arise. Perhaps when they choose their own site in 2009, the leaders of the Assyrian congregation felt that they would be able to move through grief into reconciliation but, now that the moment is upon them, they find they are not quite there yet.

    Either way, this is a complex and painful story which is given very superficial treatment in the news reports. The very superficiality of the reports, however, prevents us from concluding that the Council are blundering around in ignorance of the issues and feelings involved. They may be acutely aware of them, but feel that there is a limit to what they can do to help – and of course they may have done what they could, and more than the newspapers are telling us. In the end this is a problem which can only be solved through courage and hope on the part of the two communities concerned.

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