April 3, 2011
Terror … priest Jatinkumar Bhatt says his children Jaldhi, 13, Harishree, 8, and Raghav, 2, are very scared after a gun attack on the Auburn temple behind which they live. Photo: Simon Alekna
Behind-the-scenes talks are trying to put a stop to terrifying, violent attacks on a minority religious community, write Eamonn Duff and Natalie O’Brien.
IT BEGAN with minor acts of vandalism, including egg throwing and smashed windows, but instead of remaining periodic footnotes in the night log at Auburn police station, the incidents have grown so violent – and the issue so culturally sensitive – that even authorities are reluctant to speak about them publicly.
Australia’s oldest Hindu temple, the Sri Mandir in Auburn, is under siege and its devotees gripped by fear.
On March 19, two men in balaclavas stood at the intersection of a nearby road, spraying the front of the prayer hall with eight rounds of bullets. The building was unoccupied at the time.
The busy Hindu temple opened in 1977. It is surrounded by a predominantly Muslim population and it is no secret among locals that tensions have been simmering in recent years, caused by concerns about noise and parking problems at Sri Mandir.
”There is no excuse [for the gun attack],” the editor of Sydney newspaper The Indian, Rohit Revo, said.
”This was not the work of teenagers; neither was it a petty prank. This is part of a sustained and increasingly violent campaign to scare the temple devotees and drive them out. By definition, this latest attack was an act of terrorism.”
The Sun-Herald is aware the ongoing feud has caused disquiet among some of the most senior police in western Sydney. In a rare move, details of the shooting were deliberately held back from the NSW police media unit through concern that publicity might inflame hostilities.
Auburn City Council claims the first it knew of the incident was when The Sydney Morning Herald published an article on Wednesday. Since then, the chairman of the Community Relations Commission, Stepan Kerkyasharian, has stepped in as an intermediary between Hindus and Muslims.
”Given the enormity and complexity of the issues, this is a classic example where we need to apply the principles of multiculturalism and get people to understand and accept that we are a religiously diverse community … we live together and we respect each other’s religious diversity,” he told The Sun-Herald.
”We will be pursuing this through the commission and meeting people in the neighbourhood to discuss the issues. I will be very active in the area.”
Temple priest Jatinkumar Bhatt is praying for a peaceful solution for the sake of his three young children. Bhatt and his family live behind the temple and are too frightened to go outdoors after dark.
”On the night of the shooting, we heard the noise, but every 10 or 15 days we experience the sound of firecrackers being thrown [over the fence], so we thought it must be that again,” Mr Bhatt said.
”Then the police came. They showed me the bullet holes in the walls and asked permission to come in and investigate. I am too afraid to say why I think this is happening.”
In an attack in November, four men wielding iron bars smashed their way through 10-millimetre- thick windows, showering the hall with glass while devotees were praying inside.
The temple recently held a community open day in the hope of brokering fresh ties with the wider community.
”Many of our neighbours are very friendly but sometimes it feels like we are in a different place to Australia,” Mr Bhatt said. ”The attacks are now always. It is like in Libya or Afghanistan.”
Mr Kerkyasharian has met the Bhatt family. ”The teenage daughter says she feels like she lives in a prison,” he said. ”She said her younger brother doesn’t know how to play because they are too scared to go outside to their front yard.”
The founder of the Islamic Friendship Association of Australia, Keysar Trad, said he had given a speech at the open day, in which he stressed the need to ”respect religious places of all faiths”.
”I am convinced these problems are not being caused by people who are religious and would urge the Muslim community to show support and solidarity to their neighbours at this time,” he said.
Flemington local area commander Superintendent Phillip Rogerson said police were trying to identify the attackers. Auburn Labor MP Barbara Perry said: ”I’ve got every sympathy for the Hindu community. This type of behaviour should not be tolerated.”
Contact Auburn police through Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000.
with Leesha McKenny