Shiite mosque approved next to Assyrian Christian church, triggering tension

A new mosque in Melbourne’s outer north proposed next door to an Assyrian Christian church – many of whose members fled persecution and violence at the hands of Islamic extremists – has been approved.

The state planning tribunal on Monday gave the green light to the proposal for a new four-level Shiite mosque in Coolaroo.

The mosque, proposed by the Al Sadiq Foundation, can now be built in Coolaroo’s Kyabram Street with a nine-storey minaret. It was approved by Hume Council last August despite more than 1400 objections.

The proposed mosque is next door to St Mary’s Ancient Church of the East, a Christian congregation of about 700 people, predominantly made up of Iraqi members of the Assyrian Church.

According to the judgment from the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, the church’s congregation has many people of Assyrian background who have fled violence in Iraq – often at the hands of Shiite Muslims. But the tribunal found there was no evidence of direct conflict between Iraqi Assyrian Christians and the predominantly Lebanese Shiite Muslims who want to develop the mosque.

The Broadmeadows Progress Association had taken Hume Council’s decision to approve the mosque to VCAT, arguing it would hurt the church community, and that it would ‘‘diminish the safety and amenity of the area’’.

The association argued the church members would be so affronted by the construction of a mosque on their doorstep that they would stop attending and the church would close.

VCAT deputy president Mark Dwyer ruled there was no persuasive evidence ‘‘that an outbreak of violence in the public domain is a likely consequence’’ of approving the mosque. The tribunal found the ‘‘potential for violence is remote, and the threat of it borne more of emotion than likely actual intent’’.

A member of the St Mary’s Church congregation, named only as Ms Taylor in the ruling, told the tribunal she had seen members of her family killed in front of her by Islamic extremists in Iraq, and that her church provided her with sanctuary. ‘‘She still suffers fear and trauma in the presence of Muslims,’’ the ruling found.

The judgment found many members of the church could be ‘‘legitimately affronted at having a mosque next door’’. But it questioned a poll done by the church that found 91 per cent would cease worshipping there if a mosque was built next door.

Many parishioners had, the ruling said, chosen to live in areas where many Muslims lived, too.

‘‘There is no evidence that this represents a serious social issue of concern,’’ the judgment found.

It said it appeared the owner of the land, Hussein Ali, had purchased it with the intention of building a mosque before the church had bought and developed its site.

Mr Dwyer wrote in his judgment that the mosque would be allowed to go ahead because Victoria’s planning laws did not discriminate between religions. ‘‘Nor is it incompatible [in a town planning sense] for one place of worship to be sited adjacent to another.”

The ruling found that, even if followers of one religion had fled war or persecution overseas at the hands of extremists of another religion, ‘‘it would be a poor outcome … in Victoria if town planning decisions … effectively replicates in Australia those same divisions, fear and distrust’’.

The tribunal member commended Hume Council for its handling of the planning decision on the four-level mosque, which will also have a five-storey dome.

The 9000-square-metre site on which the mosque and 228 car parking spaces would be built on is zoned industrial, and its other neighbours are factories or warehouses. The mosque would have a 1500-person capacity

The planning tribunal ruled that a mosque next door to a church differed greatly from an earlier and separate planning decision in which a permit was refused for a proposed funeral parlour adjacent to and in the direct line of sight of an aged care nursing home.

The pastor of St Mary’s church told the planning tribunal that, although he preached tolerance and understanding to his parishioners, ‘‘he might not be able to dissuade some of the members of his church from committing acts of violence against Muslims attending the mosque’’.

The tribunal also heard from Mr Ali, who donated the land for the mosque. He gave evidence to the tribunal over the persecution he, his family and other Muslims suffered during the Lebanese civil war.

‘‘His approach has been to embrace the equal rights, freedom and respect he now finds in Australia,’’ the tribunal found.

A Hume Council spokeswoman said the council had taken the significance of the application into account. She said the council “believes this is a fair outcome”.

The tribunal found Australia has a ‘‘rich and proud history of welcoming all religions’’ and is a society ‘‘where people of different faiths can … worship side by side, without fear of threats, intimidation or violence’’.

Matthew Guy is the state’s minister for both planning and multicultural affairs. His spokeswoman Rochelle Jackson did not respond to a request from Fairfax Media for comment on VCAT’s decision.

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