Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) – An Australian state tribunal’s finding that two pastors had vilified Muslims looks set to widen the divide in the country’s Christian community between liberal mainstream church representatives who lauded the ruling and evangelicals who argued that it constituted a dangerous threat to free speech and freedom to evangelize.
Critics of the tribunal decision in the state of Victoria called for the repeal of the controversial legislation that made it possible.
In the first case of its kind under Victoria’s Racial and Religious Tolerance Act — introduced three years ago by the state’s Labor Party government — pastors Danny Nalliah and Daniel Scot were found Friday to have incited “hatred against, serious contempt for or revulsion or severe ridicule of” Muslims.
The complaints arose from a 2002 seminar addressed by Scot, a newsletter article by Nalliah and an article posted on the website of Nalliah’s organization, Catch the Fire Ministries. The case was brought against them by the Islamic Council of Victoria (ICV).
The two defended their actions, saying they had merely informed Christians about Islamic teachings, based on the Koran and other Islamic texts.
Having ruled in favor of the ICV, tribunal judge Michael Higgins will decide in the new year on possible penalties against the two pastors and Catch the Fire, which could include fines, compensation and apologies.
The case sparked interest far beyond Australia. Concerned Americans sent letters to the Australian Embassy in Washington; Christian organizations in the U.S. and other countries worried publicly about the implications; and a coalition opposing the passage of similar legislation in the U.K. saw the Australian episode as a warning.
“The frightening thing is, so-called ‘hate-crime’ legislation is very much in vogue in Western democracies and will be coming soon to a Senate or Congress near you,” Jeff King of the Washington-based group International Christian Concern said in response to the ruling.
King said the case was “a classic example of the results of well-meant but terribly flawed legislation.”
Dr. Gordon Moyes, a prominent Australian theologian and state lawmaker, was one of many critics who said Higgins’ decision was essentially a ruling against freedom of speech.
“It is a basic human right to have the ability to decide whether and what religious faith one may adhere to,” Moyes said. “This also involves the critical examination and assessment of belief systems in general.”
Australian Christian Lobby head Jim Wallace also slammed Higgins’ finding, saying it presumably meant that Australians would be unable to quote from another religion’s texts and discuss them without legal repercussions.
People have always been free to publicly debate the Bible, but this decision seems to indicate that this same freedom does not extend to other religious texts,” Wallace said. “This decision means that a person can not hold a view of the Koran that is contrary to the ‘official view’ — however one determines that.”
‘No evidence of hatred’
When the Victorian government was considering the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act, many evangelicals strongly opposed the move, arguing that common law already covered offenses like defamation and slander, and that the proposed legislation would affect people’s ability to examine other religions critically.
Now that those fears have been realized, in their view, critics called at the weekend for the law to be scrapped.
I would like to think the Act was fashioned with good intentions, but as it stands, the Victorian law is deplorable and un-Australian, and it must be repealed,” said Rod Benson, director of the Centre for Christian Ethics, a Baptist Church institution in Sydney .
“Australians everywhere should oppose this law and the introduction of similar legislation in other states and territories,” he said.
The appeal was echoed by a number of evangelical and other ministries, some of which openly questioned the judge’s view on the seminar at the center of the dispute — held at a church, for Christians, but also attended by three converts to Islam who were encouraged by an ICV representative to go along and monitor proceedings.
“There was no evidence that Christian seminar attendees felt hatred towards Muslims as a result of the teaching — rather the reverse, since Pastor Daniel Scot had encouraged them to love Muslims and invite them into their homes,” said Roslyn Phillips, a research officer for a Christian group called Festival of Light.
“The evidence of vilification, it seems, was not whether Christians felt hatred or contempt towards Muslims as a result of the seminar, but whether the three Muslim attendees — who did not reveal their faith and were technically not invited — felt hurt by Daniel Scot’s translations of Koranic verses,” Phillips said.
Grant Chapman, a lawmaker who also heads a Christian human rights organization called Tears of the Oppressed, noted that the Victorian law had effectively enabled one religious group to take another to court over a difference in religious opinion.
The religious ideas and interpretations raised during the hearing had been in the public domain for years, he said.
“They have been documented in books, on the Internet, discussed in the academic world, and in churches and mosques since time immemorial. Since religions make claims to truth and morality, they should be subject to scrutiny and challenge.”
‘Undermining social harmony’
During the tribunal hearing, the Islamic Council won the support of the local Catholic Church as well as the Uniting Church, a Protestant denomination made up of the Methodist, Congregational and some Presbyterian churches.
Following Higgins’ ruling, representatives of the Catholic and Uniting churches, together with the Anglicans, Unitarians, Quakers and Church of Christ, issued a joint statement along with the ICV and a rabbi with a Progressive Jewish group, welcoming the outcome.
Exposing the extent of the rift, the joint statement defined critics of the ruling and the legislation as “religious extremist and race hate groups.”
“They would prefer to be able to scuttle about in private misuse of the right to religious freedom, to prey on fears and anxiety that exist in parts of Victorian religious communities, inciting hatred and hostility to those of other faiths or races,” the statement said.
“It would be a mistake to repeal legislation that makes extremist groups uncomfortable and holds them to account, limiting by law the extent to which they can pursue their activities that tear at the social fabric and undermine social harmony by promoting conflict.”
In response, Benson of the Centre for Christian Ethics said the reaction from some churches welcoming the ruling “demonstrates an apparent failure to fully comprehend the radical claims of Christ and a misunderstanding of the evangelistic and apologetic imperatives that lie at the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Commenting on the different reactions from among Christians, Peter Stokes, executive director of Salt Shakers, a Christian ethical action group, said: “We all need to ask what part of the Christian Church we belong to — the hot, cold or lukewarm talked about by Christ in [the New Testament book of] Revelation 3.”
Critics pointed to what they saw as several ironies in the case.
One was the fact that the Pakistan-born Scot was one of the early victims of his homeland’s notorious blasphemy laws in the mid-1980s. He fled Pakistan under threat of prosecution for allegedly insulting the Islamic prophet, Mohammed, and made a new home in Australia, a Western democracy with a strong Christian heritage.
Another irony was seen when Scot during the tribunal hearing quoted references from the Koran and other texts about the inferior status of women in Islam, he was asked by the female lawyer acting for the ICV to give only the references, because reading the verses out aloud in the courtroom constituted vilification.
“How can it be vilifying to Muslims in the [court]room when I am just reading from the Koran?” Scot asked the tribunal — a question observers said basically could have applied to the entire case.
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