ACCEPTANCE TAKES FAITH

Shepparton is a town where unfamiliar faces become familiar. EMMA SCHENK reports.

VISIT: Chris Hazelman knows the Muslim community in Shepparton well. Pictures: LEIGH SHARP

VISIT: Chris Hazelman knows the Muslim community in Shepparton well. Pictures: LEIGH SHARP

WITH prayer beads in hand and rushing from a daily service, Imam Hassan Alkhafagi ushers us into his private room. 

The Qur'an is scrolled on tiles lining the ceiling and as we take off our shoes and sit on the floor, the Muslim leader tells us he understands why some people hate the religion. 

"Muslim is (seen as) ugly," he said.

"(People think) our religion is ugly.

"Because of the media, they see groups killing people and doing nasty things."

But extremist groups such as Al Quida and ISIS, he said, "just want to kill everyone".

"They are not Muslim," Imam Alkhafagi said. 

"I say, please, we are not like that. We are all human and our religious advisor tells us to respect people and follow our government's law.

"We are Australian citizens and we follow that law.

"Anyone that doesn't do that, anyone that says killing is above law - they are not true Muslims."

And while he accepted that some teachings spoke of killing for self defence, he said Jihad came in terms of writing, words and weapons - but not manipulation or killing.

Like many living in Shepparton, Imam Alkhafagi, of Iraq, moved to Australia more than a decade ago when he was kicked out of his own country.

Maybe because of this past heartbreak and struggle, maybe because the religion teaches modesty - but the Muslim community remains relatively private even in the most accepting of cities.

Standing in front of the understated Iraq mosque, it's clear the building has been designed purposely that way.

It sits in the middle of an industrial zone - a tiny door and scrawled lettering, is the only indication of the place of worship. 

On Friday morning, the place is deserted and seems abandoned. 

Just a few kilometres down the road, a group of Seiks are quietly reading a holy book under lamp light to honour their Guru. 

They offer food to anyone who visits. 

And at noon, back at the Iraqi mosque, dozens of people arrive and wander inside to pray. 

The ritual, practiced five times a day, is over in just 20 minutes. 

Then, worshippers return to their jobs selling goods from their home country, baking Baklava and sweets for locals and sharing Congolese music among the city. 

Of these, 1200 Africans, 1400 Afghanis, 3500 Iraqis and many more Albanians, who migrated to Shepparton in the early 1920s, all call the small rural city home. 

Early on, most sought work in the fruit picking industry, which has seen the Muslim population grow to more than 10 per cent. 

WORSHIP: The Turkish mosque.

WORSHIP: The Turkish mosque.

Each has a story to tell. 

One once walked among 2800 others - trekking from Ethiopia to Kenya - to escape turmoil in his country.

The group would say, 'don't look back', with many left to the wild animals as they lay down and died. 

Only 1400 arrived to safety.

"When you hear of these stories, when you speak to people and understand what absolute hardship they have overcome, there is no way you could turn your back on them," Shepparton Ethic Council's Chris Hazelman said. 

The centre is just one progressive step the town is taking towards integration.

With a dedicated multiculturalism liasion police officer, an inter-faith body, streets dedicated to foreign food and Mayor Jenny Houlihan opening her own private pool to teach Muslim girls to swim in privacy, there's no doubt Shepparton welcomes diversity with open arms. 

There are four mosques and a Seik temple in the town, with the recent Afghani mosque receiving no objections to the proposal.

It's a far cry from the 400 objections to the Bendigo mosque, which councillors approved late last month. 

However Mr Hazelman says it's easier for people to be accepting of other cultures because of decades of exposure.

"It's not uncommon for us (in Shepparton) to see women walking the streets in hijabs and you sometimes see people pull up on the side of the road to pray," he said.

"We're brought up with it here and don't think to question it. But I think the fear in Bendigo and other centres comes from ignorance and not knowing what to expect."

Shepparton isn't immune from intolerance and racist behaviour, though.

Mr Hazelman said in the past, school girls had their hijabs ripped off in the playground and there was anti-Muslim graffiti plastered on the Seik temple when it was first built.

We're brought up with it here and don't think to question it. - Chris Hazelman

"This just shows these people don't understand religion or what they're scared of," he said.

"But, ultimately, we have Africans serving Indians at the grocery store and people have integrated here while keeping their own values and culture."

Victorian Police multiculturalism liason officer Senior Constable Matthew Walker has been assigned to the new role, saying it was one further step towards assimilation. 

He said it wasn't necessarily about reducing crime, but rather breaking down barriers. 

"In their country, they might have had to pay to report crime or the police might have been corrupt," he said. 

"When you are a victim over there, you are treated like a criminal but here that's not the case."

Most were reluctant to talk about the mosque in Bendigo - and the anti-Muslim campaign that has now come to a head. 

But Mr Hazelman said there were ways the city could move forward and follow in Shepparton's footsteps. 

"Bendigo needs to take control of the debate," he said. 

"Outsiders seem to be running the campaign now but the town can bring it back into their own hands."

PRAYER: A man visits the Albanian mosque.

PRAYER: A man visits the Albanian mosque.

HUSHED: A lady at the Seik temple.

HUSHED: A lady at the Seik temple.

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