Proponents of a mosque planned for a small rural Australian city have hailed a court’s decision to refuse an appeal against the development, saying it is a win for multiculturalism.
A small, yet vocal group of opponents, however, say they will take their fight against the construction of the mosque all the way to Australia’s High Court.
The Victorian state Court of Appeal on Wednesday ruled against two residents in Bendigo, who argued the development of the mosque would have an adverse “social effect” on the community.
The pair, Julie Hoskin and Kathleen Howard, have been challenging the building of the mosque since it was first approved by the City of Bendigo’s council in mid-2014.
They claim that the development, proposed by the Australian Islamic Mission (AIM), will lead to the “Islamisation of Bendigo”, a city of about 100,000 people, located 150km north of Melbourne in southeastern Australia.
The Court of Appeal, however, said the pair’s arguments were not substantive, stating that the lower Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal had been correct to dismiss their original appeal against the approval of the project.
“The Court of Appeal held that the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 protects freedom of religion such that the mere practice of religious worship cannot itself be considered an adverse ‘social effect’,” the court’s judgment said.
“In the absence of any objective, concrete evidence substantiating the adverse social effects the objectors submitted the mosque could have, the tribunal acted according to law in giving the objectors’ concerns little weight.”
Seyed Sheriffdeen, secretary of AIM’s Victorian chapter, told Al Jazeera that his organisation was very thankful for the support of the Bendigo community.
“This will be a historical mosque – it has the full support of a wide spectrum of people, from the council to the local indigenous community,” Sheriffdeen said, adding that he believed fewer than 10 local residents were actively against the development.
“Our stand has been very clear – this is a place of worship. Muslims need a place to worship and pray. We have no agenda. There are many mosques in Australia and there is no ‘Islamisation’ taking place around those mosques.”
Sheriffdeen said lawyers had been working for AIM on a pro bono basis during the appeal process and would be seeking court costs from their opponents.
A statement posted on the Facebook page of the “Stop the Mosque in Bendigo” group, however, said the mosque’s opponents would be continuing their fight.
“We will continue to support the actions of Julie Hoskins and Rights For Bendigo Residents in pursuing the only way Australians currently have to protest the Islamisation of their communities – fighting ‘planning applications’ all the way to the High Court,” the statement said.
The proposed development has become a flashpoint issue in recent months, with anti-Islam protesters and left-wing protesters squaring off in the city in October.
A number of anti-Islam political parties have sprouted across the country in recent months, including the controversial Dutch politician Geert Wilder’s recent foray into Australian politics with the Australian Liberty Alliance.
Diaa Mohamed, founder of the Australian Muslim Party, told Al Jazeera that opposition to the mosque was indicative of the need for further education on Islam in Australia.
“Around Australia and across the world, there is a lot of anti-Islam feeling right now. There are many misconceptions about Muslims that need to be addressed,” he said.
“I think it starts with education – having people understand that the Muslim community is peaceful” and not a threat, he added.