AFTER years of waiting, Muslims in Bendigo will finally have their own place of worship.
The first sod has been turned at the site of the Bendigo Islamic Community Centre, which will incorporate a mosque.
Members of Bendigo's Islamic community were yesterday beaming with excitement as they celebrated the official start of works.
Community member Sajjad Muhammed said it would be significant as a Muslim to have a place of worship in Bendigo.
At the moment the community was struggling in a small room, with more people than can fit in the space.
"It's a big step for the whole of Bendigo, because we are not just building for Muslims but for the community, so there is a sports hall and a cafe there," he said.
"The mosque is just a very small part of it... the rest of the complex is for the whole community who will benefit.
"And after all that has happened in Bendigo, all the good and bad things, that all the community together, and everybody was waiting for this day, and finally it happened."
Members of Bendigo's Islamic community gathered with city leaders and Premier Daniel Andrews on Friday to turn the first sod on the Bendigo Islamic Community Centre.
Construction of the first stage, a multipurpose building, will begin next week.
It has taken more than five years for the plans to reach this point.
President of the Bendigo Islamic Association and vice president of the Bendigo Islamic Community Centre Sameer Syed said the start of construction was a milestone for Bendigo, that had been a long time coming.
Muslims in Bendigo have been worshipping in smaller places and hiring out halls.
Plans for the Bendigo Islamic Community Centre were first put to council in 2014.
The proposed $3 million centre included two prayer halls, a sports hall, a caretaker house and office.
The plans met with protest from some parts of the community, including demonstrations at council meetings and rallies bringing far right wing figures from across Australia to Bendigo on several occasions.
Leaders from groups across Bendigo - religious, political and community - stood united against this, issuing a statement that Bendigo was a "proudly multi-faith" community.
Council issued a planning permit on June 18, 2014.
Objectors took the matter to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal in 2015, arguing the mosque should be barred on planning grounds.
VCAT dismissed the appeal against the mosque in August 2015. It then passed through the Victorian Court of Appeal.
Objectors then made an application for the case to be heard in the High Court, which was rejected in June 2016.
Mr Syed said the community centre would be a place for all people in Bendigo to come together.
"The BICC as we call it will be where all Muslims in Bendigo can come together ... but it won't be just a mosque for the Bendigo Muslims to pray in, it will be a centre of religious and cultural exchange for all residents of Bendigo," Mr Syed said.
"Our vision is for every Bendigonian to benefit from the BICC, whether it be to educate themselves, engage in constructive dialogue, take part in community activities or simply drop in with family and friends for a coffee in a tranquil yet ultra-modern setting.
"That is why the centre is so much more important than just a mosque. And I am confident that once the centre is up and running Bendigonians will reflect on what a positive impact the centre has been making on this great city of ours."
Works on stage 1a and 1b of the Bendigo Islamic Community Centre are due to begin in the coming days.
Mr Syed said stage 1a and b would be completed within six to nine month, with the multipurpose building due to be ready for use by next year.
Construction of a prayer hall will follow, which will be able to accommodate up to 375 worshipers.
Mr Syed estimated the first stage would cost several million dollars.
Builders will construct a central courtyard, library and funeral and classroom facilities during the second stage of works. Stage 3 will see a sports hall, cafe and caretaker's residence built on the site. Finally, a small minaret will be built.
Bendigo Islamic Association spokesperson Doctor Aisha Neelam said the design paid respects to the architects of years gone by in Bendigo, including William Vahland.
Mr Syed said the mosque was designed to be open, transparent and very welcoming within a bush setting.
Bendigo construction company Searle Brothers director Travis Nicholson said the construction site would be set up as would any other building site.
Eman Othman watched the Victorian Premier speak in support of the Muslim community in the Bendigo Town Hall, surrounded by her family and friends.
Bendigo has been her home for almost 20 years. It's been where countless memories have been made and milestones achieved.
Friday's celebrations, marking the start of construction on the Bendigo Islamic Community Centre, will be counted among them.
The event marked a community's growth, for Ms Othman.
"When we first came we were pretty much the only Muslim family we knew of," she said.
The Bendigo Islamic Community Centre - or BICC - estimates the number of people practising Muslim in the community now to be about 500.
Ms Othman said seeing how much the community had grown had been amazing.
"To see how much support we've got is incredible," she said.
State and local government representatives joined the Islamic community in marking Friday's milestone, reiterating their appreciation for Muslim people and a multicultural society.
"We don't tolerate diversity - we celebrate diversity," Premier Daniel Andrews said.
He made a point of highlighting the many and valued ways in which Muslim people contributed to the Bendigo community, including as part of the health workforce.
Plans for BICC were met with blind hatred in some parts - from people who, in many instances, didn't even live in Bendigo.
But Ms Othman said today was no time to reflect on that. It was a day that reinforced how much support existed in Bendigo and in the broader community for Muslim people.
She said the community had been in need of a facility like BICC for nearly 20 years.
La Trobe University makes a prayer room at its Bendigo campus available to the Muslim community for worship, and community halls have served for larger events, such as a vigil after the Christchurch earlier this year.
Otherwise, Ms Othman said Muslim people from central Victoria needed to travel to Melbourne to practice their faith.
BICC has been more than a decade in the making.
BICC spokesperson Dr Aisha Neelam said the centre would be a place to pray, but it would be much more than a mosque.
"It will be somewhere people can meet, hold functions, play sport and even grab a coffee," she said.
"Everyone will be welcome there, just as they are welcome in any church or community centre."
A two-storey, multi-purpose building will be constructed first.
"The BICC will be built around one thing - the Bendigo community," Dr Neelam said.
"The building will complement its beautiful natural surrounds, and has been designed to deliver a bright, open and welcoming space for everyone.
"We love where we live, we feel welcome here and we want to use this facility to reach out to the Bendigo community."
Muslim people have been a part of the Bendigo community since the gold rush.
Dr Neelam, a Bendigo GP, said Muslim families were like any other in Bendigo.
"We work here, we're your neighbours, our kids go to school here, we volunteer. We love that Bendigo has something for everyone," she said.
"We have been coming together to pray as a Muslim community in Bendigo since 1997. Our facilities have been pretty limited and we're excited to be taking this step to build something that is more than a mosque for the whole community to enjoy."
The state government has contributed $400,000 to the first stage of construction.
Mr Andrews said the project was eligible for funding because it was a community facility, not just a place of worship.
A further $800,000 has been donated toward the project. Fundraising efforts are ongoing.
BICC vice-president Sameer Syed said the pace of progress through each stage of the project would depend on fundraising.
The permit for the project expires in eight years.
"We want to be done well before that," Mr Syed said.
Security concerns have yet to affect the design of the centre, which features open, transparent spaces that showcase the bush setting and allow for people to move freely through the area.
"Ideally we don't want to have any fences up. So that's the plan so far," Mr Syed said.
Bendigo Acting Inspector Craig Gaffee said police did not have any concerns around the security of any particular building in Bendigo.
"We understand there are people in our community that have an opposing view [to the mosque], but we expect everyone in our community obeys the law," he said.
"There is no room for any sort of prejudice or hate crime within our community.
"We ask that if anyone experiences prejudice-motivated crime that they report that to the police and we'll take the appropriate action."
He said a number of prejudice-related crimes had been reported to police previously.
"And we've taken action."
Even in the darkest days of the protests, Mr Syed said there was no doubt the day would come when the first sod on the Bendigo Islamic Community Centre would be turned.
"We've followed the laws. We've followed the process, so we had no doubt this day would come," he said.
"It's a huge milestone for us and I think for Bendigo as well. We're very excited."
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