Anger at plans for a mosque and evangelical church to be built side-by-side in Melbourne’s east has spilled over amid claims Islam ”directly contravenes our freedom values”.
It was standing room only at the City of Casey chambers in Narre Warren on Tuesday night at one of the last meetings before the council debates a proposal to build a mosque and community centre on a vacant industrial lot in Green Street, Doveton.
The mosque would be next to the church and headquarters of Catch the Fire Ministries, run by controversial anti-Islam Pastor Danny Nalliah who was acquitted of a racial vilification charge brought by the Islamic Council of Victoria in 2006. The church has already been approved by council and construction is expected to begin within weeks.
Residents at the meeting cited traffic concerns, noise pollution, and fears the mosque would be used to preach hate speech.
Mayor Amanda Stapledon repeatedly asked the gallery of about 50 people to be quiet amid booing, cheering and heckling.
“This is not Afghanistan, have some guts for a change!” one man yelled at councillors. Another carried a sign that read: “We love the Moslems but do not accept the teachings of the Koran”.
Deputy mayor Sam Aziz spoke in favour of three petitions with a total of 1600 signatures opposing the mosque. He moved a motion, which was carried by six votes to four, “that the matters raised in the petitions be considered by the council’s planning department during their deliberation on the application”.
Councillor Rosalie Crestani, who supported a second motion based on four more petitions against the mosque with a total of 48 signatures, said she had “read vastly” about Islam in the past five years, and developed a “deep concern, compassion and love for the Muslim people”.
“At the core of [Islamic] doctrine is a political ideology that seeks to control every follower’s life and eventually the surrounding community and beyond,” she said.
She gave examples of Islamic influence in the City of Casey, saying it was sometimes difficult to purchase non-halal food, and noting Muslim-only prayer rooms and swimming sessions at publicly funded facilities.
Councillor Crestani read an email from a resident saying “every mosque involves more than religion. It is their centre for training its people for the time when critical mass is achieved and the time to make huge demands on the host nation.”
When she finished speaking she received a standing ovation from the gallery.
Nazeem Hussain, a director of the Islamic Council of Victoria, told Fairfax “the proposed mosque is open to all members of the public and aims to promote a socially cohesive community in a region which is incredibly diverse and multiculturally vibrant”. He said the Islamic Council of Victoria trusted the council would assess the application according to valid planning considerations.
The Planning and Environment Act allows the council to consider factors like traffic, noise and amenity when deciding whether to approve a planning application, but not the applicant’s cultural or religious background.
Former president of Liberty Victoria, Professor Spencer Zifcak, said the City of Port Phillip had faced similar petitions in early 2011 when additional sessions were proposed for Muslim prayers in a St Kilda community house. The permit was eventually granted after the council accepted Professor Zifcak’s argument that faith was not a valid consideration under Victorian planning legislation.
The motion moved by Councillor Aziz this week said the council noted the petitioners’ concerns about “social harmony and fears [ … ] relating to possible incitement of hatred and violence”.
“While they will not impact on the planning application, they are nevertheless matters of important public discourse that needed to be discussed in a publicly elected forum such as Council,” it read.
When asked whether the council would be acting outside its powers by considering the concerns about Islam raised in the petitions, Pastor Nalliah said “technically yes, but there has to be a first time for everything”.
The planning proposal is expected to come before council in February 2013.