Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) – Christians in Australia are pondering the implications of an explosive ruling handed down Friday by a legal tribunal, which found that two Christian pastors had vilified Islam.
Immediate reactions ranged from an evangelical commentator’s view that the decision spelled “the beginning of the end of freedom of speech in Australia” to that of a liberal church denomination which said it sent a welcome message to “Christian extremist groups.”
One of the pastors at the center of the dispute said he was saddened by the outcome, but he predicted it would galvanize Christians and other Australians who cared about free speech.
Pastors Danny Nalliah and Daniel Scot were found to have breached a section of the state of Victoria’s controversial hate law, which says a person must not incite “hatred against, serious contempt for or revulsion or severe ridicule of” another person or group on the basis of religious belief or activity.
The complaint arose from a seminar on Islam run for Christians by Nalliah’s evangelical Catch the Fire Ministries in Melbourne in 2002.
Three Muslims attended on behalf of the Islamic Council of Victoria and subsequently submitted a complaint under the state’s Racial and Religious Tolerance Act, which had come into effect just two months earlier.
A lengthy legal process, weeks of public hearings before a tribunal set up under the law and months of delays finally reached a conclusion on Friday, when tribunal judge Michael Higgins handed down a summary of his judgment. A full 100-page report will be produced next week.
Higgins said the three respondents — Catch the Fire, Nalliah and Scot — had violated the section of the law covering hatred, contempt and revulsion.
The law provides for exemptions in cases where the offending action was taken “reasonably and in good faith … for any genuine academic, artistic, religious or scientific purpose” or in the public interest.
But Higgins found that the exemptions did not apply in the case before him.
“I find that Pastor Scot’s conduct was not engaged in reasonably and in good faith for any genuine religious purpose or any purpose that is in the public interest.”
Scot, a Pakistan-born scholar of Islam, was the main speaker at the seminar. He and Nalliah argued throughout the case that they had merely informed Christians attending the seminar about Islam and its teachings, based on the religion’s own texts.
The judge disagreed.
“Pastor Scot, throughout the seminar, made fun of Muslim beliefs and conduct,” he said in the summary.
“It was done, not in the context of a serious discussion of Muslims’ religious beliefs; it was presented in a way which is essentially hostile, demeaning and derogatory of all Muslim people, their god Allah, the prophet Mohammed and in general Muslim religious beliefs and practices.”
Higgins referred to some of Scot’s statements, including the view that the Koran “promotes violence, killing and looting”; that Muslims are liars; that Allah is not merciful and a thief’s hand is cut off for stealing; and that Muslims intend to take over Australia and declare it an Islamic nation.
He said Scot “preached a literal translation of the Koran and of Muslims’ religious practices which was not mainstream but was more representative of a small group in the Gulf states.”
Higgins also said he had found Scot evasive and lacking in credibility.
Apart from the seminar, the judge also dealt with two other issues: a newsletter article written by Nalliah and an article posted on the Catch the Fire website shortly after 9/11.
In the newsletter article, Nalliah claimed that Muslim refugees were being granted visas to Australia while Christians who suffer persecution in Islamic nations were refused refugee visas. He also referred to the high birth rate among Muslims in Australia at a time the birth rate in general was dropping.
Higgins said Nalliah suggested that Muslims were “seeking to take over Australia.”
“Viewed objectively and in their totality, these statements are likely to incite a feeling of hatred towards Muslims.”
Regarding the article posted on the website 15 days after 9/11, Higgins said it suggested that Islam was “an inherently violent religion.” The author, whose full name was not given, “implies that Muslims endorse the killing of people based upon their religion,” the judge said.
Under the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act, the tribunal is empowered to order public apologies, the payment of compensation or other steps. Higgins will announce penalties in late January.
‘Truth is no defense’
Speaking by phone from Melbourne after the judgment was delivered, Nalliah said the verdict had not referred at all to the issue of freedom of speech — the grounds on which the pastors fought their case.
“I’m saddened because we’ve lived under [Islamic] shari’a law, and I thought those were the countries where you could not speak [freely]. And we come to Australia and make Australia our home, and we find … freedom of speech is completely bound.”
Sri Lanka-born Nalliah worked with the underground church in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s, while Scot fled persecution in his native land in 1987 after being condemned to death under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
“It’s very evident that all we have said is the truth, but that has not been taken into consideration,” Nalliah said, noting that lawyers for the complainant had stressed to the judge throughout the case that “truth is no defense.”
While one could vilify someone according to race, religion was clearly subjective, the pastor said.
“Religion makes claims of truth. Each religion says ‘we are the right one.’ How can you vilify?”
Nalliah also lamented that a judge “who possibly does not know head or tail” of either Christianity or Islam was giving a verdict in a case of this type.
A similar view came from Bill Muehlenberg, vice-president of the Australian Family Association, who attended Friday’s hearing.
“How does a secular judge with no expertise in religion make such decisions when Islamic scholars themselves are divided on such crucial questions of theology, interpretation and exegesis?” he asked afterwards.
“Much of what the judge considered offensive was simply quotations from the Koran,” he added. “To argue that quoting a religious book makes one guilty of vilification would put 98 percent of religious discussions out of bounds.”
Muehlenberg called on Christians to protest, lobby and pray about the decision, which he said “marks the beginning of the end of freedom of speech in Australia and the official restriction of proclaiming the Christian gospel.”
In sharp contrast to Muehlenberg’s view, the state’s Uniting Church welcomed the verdict.
“Today’s ruling will send a clear message to extremist groups in Victoria that their activities are not welcome here,” said the church’s social justice and international mission head, Mark Zirnsak
“These groups now have been given a clear warning that they will not have an unfettered ability to promote hatred and hostility in the community.”
Zirnsak also commended the state’s Labor government for passing the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act.
“In our view, the beliefs and actions of groups like Catch the Fire Ministries do not represent the broad view of Christian belief in this state, where respect, tolerance and acceptance are the hallmarks of daily religious life.”
The Uniting Church is a unique Australian denomination established from an amalgamation of the Methodist, Congregational and some Presbyterian churches.
Last July, it became the first church in Australia to openly allow practicing homosexuals to become ministers. It has a strong social focus and opposed the war in Iraq.
Nalliah said Friday that he, Scot and their advisors would study the tribunal’s full judgment when it became available and would then decide on a future strategy.
“It seems bad, but … when Christ died on the cross, everyone thought it was defeat. But time proved that he rose from the dead and brought victory. Time will prove that this is not the end of this case [either].”
He said he believed the whole episode was part of a broader divine plan.
“I think this will really stir the church up, to wake up and take a stand. And not just Christians — every Aussie who loves freedom and freedom of speech is going to be affected by this decision.”
Dec. 17, 2004
Patrick Goodenough, CNSNews.com International Editor