Church and religious leaders are divided over the rapid rise of a right-wing political party that is inflaming tensions over racial issues.

Australians go to the polls October 3 in a sharply contested federal election in which the controversial One Nation party may gain enough seats to wield influence in Parliament.

One Nation's founder, Pauline Hanson, an outspoken former fish-and-chip shop owner, advocates abolition of the government's policies favoring multiculturalism. Hanson also wants severe cutbacks in immigration.

One Nation was widely assumed to be just another minority group with extremist views and little influence, until June elections in Queensland. The results shocked Australia: One Nation gained 23 percent of the vote and may now gain 10 to 15 percent nationally.

Bill Feldman, the leader of One Nation in Queensland, openly professes to be a born-again Christian.

Feldman's regional success is due partly to the Christian vote. Anglican minister Alan Colyer says, "None of the other candidates had any Christian conscience or morality about them, so I voted for somebody who I knew was prayerful and biblical." Feldman says his party wants equality for all, regardless of color, but squadrons of police are assigned to protect One Nation's Hanson from antiracism demonstrators.

Asian tourism to Australia has fallen 23 percent since May 1997, and tourism industry leaders blame Hanson's comments that Australia is "in danger of being swamped by Asians."

A One Nation branch president, Brendan Bogle, recently resigned, claiming One Nation has been infiltrated by the Confederate Action Party, which he says advocates racial segregation.

Some Australians fear that One Nation aims to revive the White Australia Policy, which from 1901 to the 1960s prohibited non-Caucasian immigration. But Feldman says the immigration policy is not about race but about economics. Once high unemployment figures drop, Feldman says, "We as a country with so much to offer can open up our borders again and be generous."

In late August, church, welfare, business, and union leaders issued a joint statement saying that One Nation's policies "threaten both our internal cohesion and our international reputation."

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