Christian pair guilty of racial hatred

AN evangelical Christian group incited hatred and severe ridicule of Muslims when it called them demons, liars and terrorists, a tribunal ruled yesterday.

In the landmark ruling, Catch the Fire Ministries pastors Daniel Nalliah and Daniel Scot were found guilty of religious vilification, making them the first under Victoria's new race and religion hate laws.

Pastor Scot told a congregation in a 2002 seminar that Muslims were training to take over Australia and encouraged domestic violence, and that Islam was an inherently violent religion.

Shortly after, the Islamic Council of Victoria filed legal action against Catch the Fire Ministries and the two pastors.

Yesterday in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, Judge Michael Higgins found that throughout the seminar Pastor Scot had made fun of Muslim beliefs and conduct.

"It was done, not in the context of a serious discussion of Muslims' religious beliefs," the judge said.

"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."

An article published on the Catch the Fire Ministries website and a newsletter distributed by the group were also found to breach the religious vilification legislation.

Islamic Council president Yasser Soliman said the ruling was an important victory for the Muslim community.

"We are not their enemies, we are fellow Australians," Mr Soliman said.

"We don't want to be positioned as an enemy or painted as one.

"Vilification hurts - it's meant to hurt. It's a tool that is sometimes used by extremists."

Pastors Nalliah and Scot described the tribunal's decision as a blow to freedom of speech and said they were considering an appeal.

"Freedom of speech is one of our fundamental values in Australia and this case is not over," Pastor Scot said.

"We cannot let freedom of speech be taken away from us; religion cannot be legislated.

"Gagging people's mouths is the worst thing you can ever do."

Pastor Scot said the seminar, which was organised after the September 11 terrorist attacks in the US, was held to increase understanding of Muslim culture.

Pastor Nalliah said: "There was no hate speech at all.

"It was teaching and understanding of what we knew of what the holy book of Islamic faith says.

"And I believe we, in a free and democratic society, should have the freedom to speak up."

Pastor Nalliah is a member of the new Christian Family First party and unsuccessfully stood for a Senate seat in this year's federal election.

More than 100 supporters and members of Catch the Fire Ministries milled outside the tribunal yesterday, many singing Christian songs.

Judge Higgins will hear submissions from lawyers relating to fines in January.

Under the new vilification legislation, there is no maximum fine.