SYDNEY: Women react as they carry flowers outside the Christ the Good Shepherd Church in Sydney's western suburb of Wakeley on April 16, 2024. — AFP
SYDNEY: Women react as they carry flowers outside the Christ the Good Shepherd Church in Sydney's western suburb of Wakeley on April 16, 2024. — AFP
Tightknit Assyrian community rocked after church stabbing

SYDNEY: The stabbing of a prominent bishop has rocked Australia’s tightknit Assyrian community, conjuring terrors of past violence in the homelands many fled. During a livestreamed church service Monday, a 16-year-old suspect slashed wildly at Bishop Mar Mari Emmanuel as he gave a sermon in Sydney, one of the safest cities on Earth.

The suspect was quickly subdued and no one was gravely hurt, but the incident incited riots that lasted hours and shattered a community’s sense of peace. “For community members who escaped war-torn countries, witnessing something like that was triggering, and brought back memories they’d tried to bottle up and don’t want to remember,” said Ramsin Edward, a board member at the Assyrian National Council of Australia.

Since the attack, Edward has been speaking to congregants and the community, trying to understand and assuage a burning anger that left homes damaged, police cars wrecked and officers hospitalized. Many of the people who rushed to Christ The Good Shepherd Church were concerned about the safety of elderly parishioners inside — some of whom were relatives. “Communities shouldn’t be afraid to go to church,” he told AFP.

This sentiment runs deep for a community anchored by faith and language that have sustained it for centuries and set Assyrians apart from neighbors in their ancient homelands — modern-day Iraq and Syria.

Since Monday night’s violence, religious leaders have met law enforcement and issued public calls for calm, trying to make sure nightfall on Tuesday does not bring more violence. Church parishioners on Tuesday helped clear the streets of hurled bottles and bricks, a declaration the community would overcome this spasm of hate. But Edward said some were too afraid to return. One resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told AFP she was watching the livestream with her daughter when the stabbing occurred. “We don’t know why this young guy is doing this. He came to God’s house to kill him and he couldn’t,” she said.

The resident, who fled war in Iraq, said she was “scared” as helicopters had circled overhead on Monday night, people threw projectiles and smashed windows. She added the bishop was a “lovely man” and was “welcoming of all people”.

“I don’t come to church much because of the baby, but I see him teach people on Facebook and watch everything he says. I feel sorry about him,” she said.

Online bishop

The church and its bishop have an online following of about 200,000 people — far more than Australia’s Assyrian community. The bishop, born and raised in Iraq, is a prominent conservative leader who was ordained a priest in 2009 and then a Bishop in 2011. But he is not without controversy.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, he gained support by arguing lockdowns were akin to “modern slavery” and “the death rates out of those who were vaccinated were more than the ones who died because of the Coronavirus”.

He has taken stances that have been highly critical of Islam. Those comments and others like them have caused schisms within the local Assyrian community, some of whom avoid dealing with him or his congregants.

But the attack has brought unity, with the major Assyrian denominations stating their solidarity. “Our hearts and prayers are with the victims and we beseech the Lord to give them comfort and speedy recovery,” said sister denomination, the Assyrian Church of the East. — AFP

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