"Symbol of hatred" leaves councillor shaken

FULL COVERAGE: Bendigo mosque: Emotion fuels debate

A BENDIGO councillor has woken to a "strong symbol of hatred" from anti-Muslim protesters following his support for the region's first mosque. 

Black balloons have twice been hung on Cr Mark Weragoda's fence - including after the City of Greater Bendigo council meeting on Wednesday night -  in what he says is a targeted attack. 

But he has vowed to fight against racism. 

An anonymous group last week confirmed that the black balloons had been used as a symbol linking the prevalence of domestic violence to the growing Islamic community in the region. 

Cr Mark Weragoda said protesters had lined his house with anti-Islam balloons, hurled abuse at him in the Bendigo CBD, attacked him on Facebook and Twitter and jeered at him in this week's council meeting. 

Cr Weragoda, who is an Anglican of Sri Lankan background, says the attacks seemed targeted because of his race. 

"I moved here when I was 14 and never have I dealt with anything like this," he said. 

"I feel threatened and I think it's because of my skin colour.

"It's definitely a strong symbol of hatred and it's not the first time I have been targeted. Protesters also hurled abuse at me last night and played Middle Eastern music as I spoke."

He said there was no doubt multiculturalism was important in Bendigo. 

"We have embraced almost 400 new citizens from all different walks of life in last twelve months - these are surgeons, doctors, dentists, lecturers," he said. 

"You can't isolate Muslims in the way that these protesters have and I don't think they have much respect.

"Racism often comes down to misinformation and this is a clear case of that. Wouldn't it be nice if everyone accepted a plan to enhance diversity and multiculturalism in Bendigo?

"It's a sad reflection on the minority who don't agree with that."

Cr Weragoda has reported the matter to the council. 

Chief executive Craig Niemann said threats to councillors and damage to personal property would not be tolerated and that council planned to report the matter to police. 

"We must support the councillors in every way possible and provide a safe environment for them to work, in," he said. 

"We will monitor this situation as we have been in the past."

Mr Niemann said numerous safety measures had been put in place, including ensuring individuals were not left alone in public meetings. 

"We don't want people to be afraid - we just want an open community discussion," he said. 

"Not everyone is going to be happy but that doesn't mean residents should take matters into their own hands. Councillor safety should not be impacted."

Several other councillors supported Cr Weragoda, with Cr Peter Cox backing claims that the racist attacks were unfounded and based around misinformation. 

"There is a lack of education about Islam and mosques all over Australia," he said. 

"We are just not seeing in the press the sorts of things these objectors are talking about."

Cr Rod Campbell said he was "blown away" by the black balloon attack, and Cr Lisa Ruffell noted how "immature" the action was. 

"What people forget is this is a councillor who was doing his job. His family and business shouldn't be involved in all of this," she said. 

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