COMMUNITY tensions over plans to build an Islamic centre in Gladstone are fuelled by “unreal fears”, a Church expert on Christian-Muslim relations says. Sydney’s Centre for Christian-Muslim Relations co-ordinator of Columban Father Patrick McInerney is regularly called upon to address religious and cultural concerns that increasingly confront Australian towns and city communities. In Gladstone, anti-Muslim sentiments are being voiced after the Islamic Society of Gladstone lodged a development application to build a worship centre.
An anti-Islam Facebook page – Stop The Mosque Gladstone – with thousands of followers, is urging Gladstone residents to oppose the project, citing “safety concerns”. Townsville resident Kim Vuga, who created the page and who leads the political party Love Australia Or Leave, believes Gladstone is vulnerable to an Islamic takeover. “One only has to look at Lakemba in Sydney,” she said. “We are dealing with people who come over here and they are very good at segregating themselves from the community.”
However, Fr McInerney said there were plenty of examples of cohesive and harmonious multi-religious communities in Australia. “People have this fear, but it is irrational, it is not based in reality,” he said. “That’s the major problem here. “Obviously the reporting of suicide attacks, bombings and violence carried out by some ‘Muslims’ is what gets in the news, but they are an extremist fringe. “They certainly do not represent mainstream Islam and are in fact acting contrary to explicit Koranic texts and established Islamic principles, including Sharia. “The Christian command is love your neighbour. It doesn’t distinguish whether your neighbour is a Muslim or a Jew or a Hindu, or an unbeliever.”
About 100 Muslim families live in Gladstone, and are made up of Australian-born Muslims, as well as immigrants from the Middle East, Africa and Asia. “Our community is built up of diverse individuals from different demography and professions,” ISG spokesman Mohammad Uddin said. “Our community represents a wide spectrum of professionals like doctors, nurses, engineers, teachers, mariners.” The proposed Islamic centre in Gladstone currently before the Gladstone Regional Council is for a prayer room, community meeting rooms and a library. The Islamic community holds major events such as Ramadan in church and other community facilities.
In Fr McInerney’s view, a mosque or community centre would actually benefit the Gladstone community. “If you don’t allow Muslims a place to gather, where the young people can be instructed in their faith by trained imams, where do they go?” he said. “They feel rejected, they feel alienated, they go into garages, they get onto Sheik Google where they get exposed to the ‘radical stuff’ and they get led astray. “To ban the mosque is to actually create the problem. To establish the mosque, provides the opportunity for young Muslims to be properly educated in their faith.”
Opponents of the mosque (on Facebook) say they just don’t want Muslims at all in a community like Gladstone. “Well, we are an open society,” Fr McInerney said. “We are a multicultural, multi-religious society. “We have a secular organisation of government. We have no basis in law in which to reject them or exclude them.” Fr McInerney said Christians, as followers of Jesus, were called “to be welcoming of the stranger in our midst”. “That’s a classic biblical value,” he said. “According to the New Testament, how we treat other people will be the basis of how we are judged.”
Fr McInerney is director of the Columban Mission Institute in North Sydney and Centre for Christian-Muslim Relations is part of the institute. He is also a staff member of the institute’s Centre for Mission Studies.
Prayer vigil: Fr Patrick McInerney (right), with Rabbi Zalman Kastel (left) and Sheikh Wesam Charkawi on the steps of Sydney’s Lakemba mosque meeting on the evening of the Lindt café siege in Martin Place in December 2014. Photo: Courtesy of ABC western Sydney reporter Mohamed Taha