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Mayor calls mosque rejection a 'fantastic win', but says space will be found for worshippers

The 3D rendering of mosque project (L) and a portrait image of Cumberland Council Mayor Steve Christou. Source: Nabi Akram Islamic Centre

The mayor of one of Sydney’s most multicultural council areas says he’s “open” to help find an alternate location for a mosque development after receiving backlash for saying a court's decision to dismiss a construction proposal was a “fantastic win”.

Cumberland City Council Mayor Steve Christou tells SBS Arabic24 that he should’ve worded a recent Facebook post “better” after it received scores of angry comments. 

In it, Councillor Christou said a decision by the Land and Environment Court to dismiss a construction proposal for a 300-person mosque at 2C Factory Street, Granville, was a “fantastic win” for council residents. 

Commenters on the post responded by calling the mayor's words "absolutely appalling" and “a disgrace”, while another person accused him of "inciting hate".

Cr Christou denies the accusations, saying, "When I said ‘fantastic win’ I meant it wasn't the right location.”

"It had nothing to do with what religious group was applying. The council's decision would have been the same if it was a Catholic or Greek Orthodox church or any form of other religion.

“Upon reflection, the Facebook post could have been worded better. It definitely wasn't my intention to make fun of the rejection.

"I'm going to be open to helping them seek an alternate location in the Cumberland City local government area that works well for everybody.” 

Some commenters on the post point out the existence of a Korean church of similar capacity to the mosque on the street behind the proposed mosque location. 

Cr Christou clarified that the church existed prior to an updating of the Local Environmental Plan six months prior to the council's rejection of the mosque application in 2019.

"It was agreed that any existing church may remain but moving forward all places of public worship need to be in an industrial area zone,” he said. 

The proposal included a double-storey, 218-space carpark.

The council's 2019 rejection of the proposal contended that residents would be exposed to an influx of cars on the street and unreasonable noise. 

The Land and Environment Court then dismissed the appeal in January 2021, citing traffic and noise complaints. 

The proposal was put forward by the Nabi Akram Islamic Centre, which represents worshipers of the Hazara minority. 

The Hazara people are an ethnic group from central parts of Afghanistan and are considered by numerous rights groups as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.

Nabi Akram chairman Enayat Hassib said the group’s members have been in the area for more than 20 years and are heavily active in the community. 

"We have so many youth programs that help get young people off the street,” he said. “[We have] volunteer programs, strong interfaith relationship with our neighbours and even collaborative relationship with the police.”  

The mosque project's lead architect Alan Mhana said his team worked closely with the council on all design aspects from 2018. 

"The council took a long time to get back to us, but we complied with all revisions made by the council and changed the design accordingly,” he said. 

Mr Mhana said the design team changed the mosque's design to mitigate any risk of traffic congestion on the street, which was one of the council's cited concerns. 

"Everything was approved by the court, but it all came down to the acoustics. Our lawyers believed our acoustics expert wasn't given enough time to make his case.” 

He also said the mosque offered to open up its parking space for the churchgoers during Sunday mass as a "gesture of goodwill" and to support interfaith relations in the community.

Cr Christou said he would make efforts to reach out to the Nabi Akram group within the next week to help them find a more suitable location for the mosque.

"I will have my office reach out to the Nabi Akram group to provide my details and make an appointment at some time of their convenience within the fortnight."

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