Two Christian pastors in Australia will appear in court next
month to face complaints brought by Muslims who accuse them of vilifying Islam.
Their appearance in a legal tribunal in the state of Victoria is the culmination of an 18-month dispute between a Christian group that organized a seminar on Islam and three Muslims who attended it.
The three claimed a speaker at the seminar had incited "fear and hatred" against Muslims and, backed by the state's Islamic Council, took their case to a special state commission operating under controversial new hate legislation.
The Christian group, Catch the Fire Ministries, denied the vilification claims,
saying the seminar had merely informed Christians about Islam and its
teachings, as set out in the Quran and other
Acting under Victoria's new Racial and Religious Tolerance Act, the complainants took their case to the state commission, but attempts to resolve it through conciliation failed.
The matter was then referred to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT), a body which operates like a court and can impose fine of up to $3,900 for individuals and $19,800 for organizations.
Facing the complaint is Catch the Fire pastor Danny Nalliah, who has worked with the underground Christian church in Saudi Arabia, and seminar speaker Daniel Scot, an expert in Islamic studies who migrated from Pakistan to Australia to escape religious persecution.
Bringing it is three individual Muslims and the Islamic Council of Victoria (ICV), whose representative dealing with the case, Philip Knight, declined to comment Monday.
A spokesman for leading Australian law firm Allens Arthur Robinson, confirmed that it was acting on behalf of the Muslim complainants in the case, but was under client instructions not to comment further.
Nalliah said in an earlier interview the three Muslims had attended the obviously Christian seminar uninvited, and evidently took offense at what they heard.
"We will not bow down to any pressure, as we have the right to stand for what we believe, in a free and democratic country," he said in a statement this week.
"As an Australian, I love my nation. I would not compromise the truth, as the word of God states that the truth will set us free."
Catch The Fire is calling on Christian supporters to pray and fast ahead of the tribunal hearing.
Mark Durie, an Anglican minister in Victoria who has lived and undertaken research in an Islamic society, is helping Nalliah and Scot to prepare their arguments.
He said by phone from Melbourne the pastors hoped to obtain expert witnesses to present evidence in what was expected to be "quite a complicated case."
"One of the things we're doing is documenting Islamist theological statements in the Australian Muslim community. One of the issues here is 'What is Islam,' and we will most likely present a detailed report on what Muslims in Australia have been saying about issues such as jihad and democracy.
"Why take a Christian to court for what Muslims themselves are saying right here in Melbourne?"
Durie said the Muslims who attended the seminar were "Anglos" - Australians of European origin - who were relatively recent converts to Islam. As such, they were likely genuinely offended by what they heard.
"People who convert from those backgrounds are not normally familiar with Islamist ideology. They normally buy into a more defensive view of jihad, for example. Some of the things they found offensive [according to their complaint] were just things quoted from the Quran. So it's partly a particular interpretation of the Quran that they were reacting to."
"I believe they sincerely believe that what was being taught was not true, so they are probably ill-informed."
As for the ICV, he said, it was no doubt well aware of the differences of views within the Muslim community. "I can't comment on what their agenda is."
In its written response to the complaint, Catch the Fire Ministries rejected allegations that his teaching incited hatred.
"It cannot be regarded as controversial that there are passages in the Quran ... [and other important religious texts] which could and do incite believers in Islam to violence and hatred of non-Muslims. These passages are well-known, and widely cited by terrorist groups," it said.
"Exposing the roots of this problem within Islam is not the same thing as inciting hatred. Since Christians are one of the named targets of jihad fighting in the Quran, they have a right and a duty to be well informed about this aspect of Islam."
'Western political correctness'
The Barnabas Fund, a UK-based Christian charity working in Islamic societies, is closely watching the Australia case.
In a briefing, it said the fact that Scot was one of the defendants was "bitterly ironic," as he was forced to flee to Australia after he became "one of the first victims of Pakistan's notorious blasphemy laws."
In 1986, the college he worked for threatened to bring a charge of insulting the prophet Mohammed - an offense carrying the death penalty - unless he converted to Islam.
"The charge was brought after he refused to do so and explained his belief that his spiritual salvation could come only from Jesus Christ, and not Mohammad," the Barnabas Fund said.
"Having fled religious discrimination in Pakistan, Scot again finds himself accused of a similar crime in Australia, the country in which he originally found refuge.
"This is an indication of the growing trend to place Islamic teaching and Muslim actions beyond the bounds of criticism, not only in the Islamic world, but also, as a result of misguided ideas of political correctness, in the West as well."
The Barnabas Fund also pointed to a possible, unintended consequence of the case in Australia.
If the tribunal rules that some of "the more unpalatable teachings" of a particular religion constitute vilification, the next time an adherent of that faith expounds those same views, he could surely also be prosecuted under the same law, it argued.
"Muslims in Victoria may, in the future, find this law being used against them."
One Muslim commentator who has been critical of the case being brought against the two pastors is Australian Muslim Public Affairs Committee executive director Amir Butler.
Writing in a Victoria-based tabloid newspaper last June, Butler questioned the wisdom of what he called an attempt to use legislation "to bash these Christians into silence."
"The effect was the exact opposite: the ideas were given an airing that they would never have received had the Muslims not responded in this way ... we were left with the impression that Muslims, unable to respond with intellectual arguments, had resorted to a kind of bullying."