Catholics welcome, Muslims not – SMH – 09 Sep.08


IT IS the tale of two schools. The Camden residents’ group that fought a Muslim society’s proposal for a school in rural Camden has welcomed a Catholic organisation’s plans to build a school nearby because “Catholics are part of our community”.

The president of the Camden/Macarthur Residents’ Group, Emil Sremchevich, said the Catholic school plan “ticked all the right boxes”, even though he is yet to see its development application.

“Catholics are part of our community so we should be supporting it on this basis alone. We have to welcome them,” Mr Sremchevich told the Herald. “To become part of a community, you need to live in the community. You can’t just turn up.”

The Quranic Society said Mr Sremchevich’s comments were racist but he rejected that tag. “Why is that racist? Why is it discriminatory? It’s very simple: people like some things but don’t like other things. Some of us like blondes, some of us like brunettes. Some of us like Fords, some of us like Holdens. Why is it xenophobic just because I want to make a choice? If I want to like some people and not like other people, that’s the nature of the beast.” Mr Sremchevich was among those who applauded a Camden Council decision in May to reject the Quranic Society’s application to build a 1200-student school at Burragorang Road, Cawdor. The council said it was refused “on planning grounds” but one resident, Kate McCulloch, said Muslims would not fit into the Camden community.

“The ones that come here oppress our society, they take our welfare and they don’t want to accept our way of life,” she said then, when she had hoped to follow Pauline Hanson into politics.

The Catholic Education Office of Wolllongong is in negotiations to buy a plot of land adjacent to the 150-student Mater Dei special-needs school in Macquarie Grove Road. Mater Dei will remain but the Catholic Education Office of Wollongong wants to build a 1000-student high school on the adjacent plot.

It is less complicated than the Quranic Society application, which would have required rezoning. The Mater Dei site is already zoned for a school.

A spokesman for the Quranic Society, Issam Obeid, said: “Everyone can see there is a double standard … No one knows anything about the Catholic school and they say, ‘Yeah, give it a tick already.’ I think racism is affecting this.”

A spokesman for Wollongong’s Catholic Education Office, Peter McPherson, said more schools were needed in south-west Sydney to cope with population growth. “Our site is currently a school zoning so we don’t believe we will have any problems with rural zoning issues,” he said.

Mr Obeid stressed that he did not object to the Catholic plans. But he said the society’s school would have taken non-Muslims. “The council said they rejected us because of traffic and zoning, but I think if we didn’t have the backlash from the community then it could have ended very differently. We want to integrate into the community but they won’t let us.”

Before the vote, protesters placed pigs’ heads on stakes and draped an Australian flag between them on the proposed school site.

Camden’s Mayor, Chris Patterson, said religion had nothing to do with the the council’s decision in May. “And this DA will be treated exactly the same. The council will take into account traffic, amenity, noise.”

A Quranic Society appeal will be heard in the Land and Environment Court later this month.


Over Camden’s dead body – SMH – 25 Sep.08

Linda Morris Religious Affairs Writer
September 25, 2008

AN ISLAMIC cemetery will be built in the grounds of a historic Anglican graveyard near Camden where plans for an Islamic school were rejected this year following fierce community opposition.

The Lebanese Muslim Association paid $1.5 million for the St Thomas Anglican Cemetery at Narellan in July. The site has space for almost 4000 bodies and will help overcome an acute shortage of gravesites in Sydney.

The prospectus for the An-Nur Islamic Cemetery and Burial Ground, obtained by the Herald, shows the cemetery will have capacity for 1900 single plots or 3800 double plots and would be able to cater for the needs of the growing Muslim community in Sydney’s south-west for 10 to 15 years.

But the sale has angered locals fiercely protective of the heritage values of the cemetery and who say the Anglican Church should never have sold it.

Len English has 33 relatives buried at the cemetery and mowed it until the church sold it to a funeral firm headed by William Cole in 2004.

“The first record of burials [goes] back to 1839 and there were burials there before that,” Mr English said. “The bullock teams used to stop over at Narellan on their way from Sydney to Camden and further south-west and that’s where they would bury their dead.

“The Friends of St Thomas did all they could to save the cemetery and even approached council to see if they could help in the purchase of the site from the Anglican church. The church had no right to sell the cemetery land in the first place.

“I’m going in to see the local member, if not the Mayor of Camden. My heritage is up there: my grandfather and grandmother, my parents, my brother and uncles. Our family goes back 200 years in the district. They came to Camden Park and stayed there.

“I’ve got nothing against migrants but when they want to take over your cemetery …”

Even so, the Muslim association president, Shawky Kassir, said he did not expect a repeat of the uproar that followed the Quranic Society’s application to build a school at nearby Cawdor.

Mr Kassir said he believed the public would accept the need for the Muslim community to bury its dead and cemeteries were a “well mannered” development. He pledged to protect existing graves.

Only Rookwood Cemetery offers a dedicated area for Muslims but it is fast running out of space.

The prospectus bills the new cemetery as accessible to Sydney and Campbelltown via the M5 and Hume Highway and was “set in picturesque rural surrounds” that offered a “peaceful ambience for respectful reflection in a unique setting not found in many other inner-city facilities”.

A spokesman for Sydney Anglicans said the site was sold to Camden Valley Funerals, headed by funeral directors William and Christine Cole, in 2004 for $90,000.

“The Anglican diocese sold in good faith to the only people to express an interest in the purchase of the land.”

Mr Cole told the Herald he had offered to sell the site to local heritage interests but they had told him they did not have the money. He had used the cemetery for several burials but had decided not to proceed with his plans for the site due to family issues.

The new buyers had promised the cemetery would be divided into Protestant and Muslim sections, all burial reservations would be honoured and the cemetery well cared for, Mr Cole said.

The cemetery was listed as a heritage item on the Camden Local Environment Plan and existing graves could not be demolished or altered without council approval. The heritage listing means the owner has to address heritage concerns when developing the lands.

Camden Council said it had not been told of any proposals for the site but the new owners would not need to make a development application for a burial site.

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