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Communities unite after attacks on places of worship

A 1.2-metre statue of the Virgin Mary at a church in Punchbowl has been smashed to pieces, in the latest act of religious vandalism to shock communities.

Acts of vandalism and desecration have also been perpetrated recently against Sikh gurdwaras, Jewish synagogues and mosques, as well as the sites for proposed mosques.

The latest incident at St Charbel’s Church in Punchbowl, followed a separate incident at a different Lebanese Maronite place of worship, Our Lady of Lebanon Church in Harris Park in September, where occupants of a passing car reportedly brandished an ISIS flag and threatened “to kill the Christians”.

Insult to freedom and religion 

The Maronite Bishop of Australia, Antoine-Charbel Tarabay, said, “I can’t say this is a reflection of the persecution of Christians that is going in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.”

But he said he was “worried about the climate behind it... It’s against the freedom of conscience, worship and religion, which we cherish in this land.”

“We are against any attacks against a place of worship... We are also against any insult against religious symbols – that is a common understanding between religions.”

“When it comes to a stage of crossing that border, when we attack shrines, break statues and show cartoons insulting the Prophet Mohammad, there is something wrong.”

He added communities should be the first to address “fanaticism and fundamentalism” and promote “peace and harmony” within their own communities.

It was important for religious leaders not to blame other faiths or peoples for attacks on religious institutions, according to Stefan Romaniw, chairman of the Australian Federation of Ukrainian Councils. “Collectively, we can unite around that,” he said.

He labelled an attack on a Ukrainian Catholic Church in western Sydney last June “un-Australian” and suggested the perpetrators were “people who don’t respect themselves”.

But he chose “not (to) have any suspicions. We don’t know and don’t want to create unnecessary tensions.”

“Rather than inflame it, we have to manage it well, and manage community relations,” Mr Romaniw said.

“The perpetrators are like terrorists – they want to get attention. The less attention we give them, the better.”

Attacks on minority religions

Islamic places of worship have also been attacked, with a pig’s head being thrown into a mosque in western Newcastle and the proposed site of a mosque in western Sydney being damaged and vandalised with anti-Muslim slogans.

In an apparent show of ignorance in eastern Perth, vandals painted anti-Islamic slogans on a Sikh gurdwara and caused $50,000 in damage. The incident followed separate attacks on two mosques and an Islamic school in Perth.

In Griffith in regional NSW, a Sikh place of worship was attacked twice in a month and its walls strewn with racist slogans.

Securing places of worship

A spate of attacks in the 1990s aimed at the Jewish community saw a synagogue in Bankstown burnt to the ground and a synagogue in Canberra fire-bombed.

“When you attack a religious institution its desecration rather than just insult and offence... (Attackers) are saying to people, even your sanctuary, where you want to commune and worship your deity is not safe,” said Jeremy Jones, of the Australia/Israel Jewish Affairs Council.

“In the past few years, there have been very few attacks on Jewish synagogues – mainly because the Jewish community has invested a lot into security,” Jones said.

“We have reason to believe physical attacks would occur if there wasn’t any security.”

The community has used a mix of volunteer personnel from the Communal Security Group and professional security guards.

The federal government’s Secure Schools program, which was initiated in 2007 to “protect schools that face a special risk of attack, harassment or violence stemming from racial or religious intolerance”, will for the first time fund security guards this year, as reported in The Point Magazine.

The scheme has previously paid for 126 projects at 76 government and non-government schools and pre-schools, many of which are attached to places of worship.

The strength of faith

At St Charbel’s Church in Punchbowl, Reverend Father Joseph Sleiman said the 20-year-old statue of Virgin Mary was built on parishioner donations. But despite the loss, “people still have faith. We’ll continue our worship and prayer and whatever happens we believe in God.”

“Australia is a democratic country. We respect the religion of each other. We don’t want the ambience of war between religions or people... such as in Syria, Iraq or Lebanon,” he said.

The Point

Communities keep faith while attacks on places of worship threaten harmony.

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