Recent assaults on Muslims and Christians are straining Australia's reputation for religious and racial tolerance.

Police have made no arrests to date in connection with attacks on 11 churches in racially mixed areas of Sydney and four mosques in Brisbane. All the incidents occurred after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

In addition, a school bus carrying Muslim children was pelted with stones and bottles on September 13. One Lebanese church in Sydney was defaced with neo-Nazi graffiti.

Christian and Muslim leaders denounced the attacks and then called for calm. Australia's Muslims constitute about 1 percent of the population. Christians constitute 67 percent. Twenty-five percent of the country's citizens are foreign-born. Seventeen percent were born in countries where English is not spoken.

Racial tensions have risen in recent years as 12,000 legal refugees have arrived annually in the former British colony. In addition, more than 4,500 have come ashore this year seeking asylum.

"One of the important values we have in a multicultural society is the tolerance and outward-looking view of people from a different background," said Philip Ruddock, Australia's immigration minister, on Sydney's 2GB radio station.

Sultan Dean, president of the Islamic Council, said after one mosque was destroyed that Queensland's 15,000 Muslims, though angry, are keeping away from the "terrorist rat bags" who attacked the mosques.

Meanwhile, three times in eight days, vandals hit Banksdown Baptist, a church in a heavily Muslim area of Sydney. They broke 11 windows and attempted to burn down the church. The attacks caused the equivalent of US$8,500 in damage.

Banksdown's pastor, Bruce Cockroft, asked Christians to pray for those responsible and for persecuted believers. "The morning our church was set fire, we prayed for a church in Indonesia whose church building was torched," Cockroft told CT.

According to pastor Ken Coleman, a $3,700 arson attack occurred at the multiracial St. Thomas' Anglican Church in Auburn. After the initial shock, he said, his congregation has come together with renewed unity.

After his Uniting Church in Bass Hill was attacked, pastor Neil Ericksson invited the spiritual leader of Australia's Muslims, Sheik Taj Aldin Elhilal, to conduct a joint blessing during a service on October 14.

"[Elhilal] expressed his sorrow, saying there was never justification for damaging a place of worship, saying [the vandals] were people with 'black hearts,'" Ericksson said.

Archbishop Peter Carnley of the Anglican Church in Australia urges people to be cautious before expressing "understandable outrage" about terrorist attacks. "It is not the time to direct our anger towards people of particular religious traditions or ethnic origins," Carnley says.

Related Elsewhere:

In October, Christianity Today covered demands from Christian leaders for the Australian government to reverse its decision to reject asylum for at-risk refugees.

The State Department's 2001 International Religious Freedom Report for Australia said that "the generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom."

For more on Australia, see Christianity Today'sWorld Report.

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