In the wake of the Sydney siege and its potential backlash against Muslims, Shepparton academic and retired priest Frank Purcell remained positive and pointed to the lessons of history.
‘‘Australia has a long tradition of tolerance — and Shepparton is 50 years ahead of the rest of the country when it comes to accepting people from different religions and cultures,’’ Mr Purcell said.
‘‘The First Fleet was a multicultural experience with sailors on board from across the world. ‘‘We have a government that does not prefer one religion over another — and we have learned that tolerance is a good value system.’’
As president of Shepparton’s Inter-Faith Network, Mr Purcell said new migrants often looked to religion as a way of holding on to their identity.
‘‘But eventually the mainstream accepts the secular state. The Albanians have accepted it here, and mainstream Muslims are accepting it too,’’ he said.
‘‘Remember, it took us 150 years to accept Catholics.’’
He said the Sydney hostage siege was an aberration.
‘‘Madmen from the right and the left do these things — they are not from the mainstream,’’ he said.
He believed Shepparton was a beacon of multicultural tolerance because of the availability of employment for migrants and the work being done in schools to promote understanding.
‘‘From the 1920s onwards, migrants from peasant backgrounds have arrived here with skills they have used in labouring and farming. They grabbed the opportunities and were too busy making money to get involved in the other stuff,’’ he said.
Mr Purcell said employment was a key factor in preventing radicalism.
‘‘In Islamic culture, you can’t get married until you have a job. We have to be aware of this,’’ he said.
He said Muslim women had told him they felt happy and safe walking the streets of Shepparton. ‘‘In Shepparton we say ‘g’day’ to everyone — whether they wear a hijab or not,’’ he said.
‘‘Shepparton has the runs on the board and should be an example to Australia.’’
He said while Ballarat and Bendigo had experienced resistance to proposed new mosques, Shepparton had not. ‘‘We have four mosques here and we haven’t heard a peep,’’ he said.