Sydney church stabbing was ‘terrorist act’

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Australian security chiefs are on alert for further attacks as the stabbing of a bishop in Sydney was declared an act of terrorism.

A 15-year-old boy is accused of attacking Bishop Mar Mari Emmanuel, a senior figure in the ultra-conservative Assyrian Orthodox Church, and wounding three others during a live broadcast of a sermon.

At least 30 people, including two police officers, were injured when angry crowds congregated outside the church to demand vengeance on Monday night.

Chris Minns, the New South Wales premier, said thousands of police officers were deployed to protect religious organisations and structures ‘‘in order to avoid retaliation or tit-for-tat violence”.

The incident has prompted Anthony Albanese, Australia’s prime minister, Richard Marles, his deputy, and Penny Wong, the foreign minister, to convene for an emergency security meeting with the heads of the defence force and ASIO, the country’s spy agency.

Leaders of the Lakemba mosque in Sydney’s west revealed they had received threats to firebomb the mosque on Monday night and would have heightened security this week.

Mr Minns gathered leaders of the local Muslim, Assyrian and Melkite communities for an emergency meeting at 10.30pm on Monday, organising for them to put their names to a statement condemning the violence and calling for calm.

“It’s a combustible situation and I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” Mr Minns told 2GB on Tuesday afternoon.

Karen Webb, the New South Wales police commissioner, confirmed on Tuesday morning that she had declared the alleged assaults at Christ The Good Shepherd Church a “terrorist act”.

“Strikeforce Katrina has been established to investigate that side of the events last night and a referral has been made and agreed to by the joint counter-terrorism investigation team,” Ms Webb said.

Noting the teenager had made comments “centred around religion’’ when he approached the bishop, she said investigators believe the incident could be considered ‘‘religious-motivated extremism’’.

Communities in western Sydney were on high alert for the potential for “tit for tat” retaliations, he said.

Police confirmed the boy was known to police, but ‘‘not well known’’.

“He wasn’t known to us from a terrorism point of view, he was not on any terror watchlist,’’ Ms Webb said.

“This is the first time this individual has come to our attention in this manner.”

Graphic footage captured during the Monday evening Mass showed a person dressed in black approaching the altar and launching a furious attack on the bishop’s head and upper body.

Father Isaac Royel suffered a shoulder wound and multiple lacerations when he tried to intervene to stop the attack, police will allege.

Bishop Emmanuel
The bishop is known for his anti-LGBTQ views and scepticism over Covid vaccines. - Facebook

Officers were later forced to barricade themselves and the suspect inside the church when hundreds of people gathered to demand vengeance for the stabbing, the second major knife assault in Australia in three days.

Dominic Morgan, the state’s ambulance commissioner, said paramedics were ‘‘holed up in the church’’ for more than three hours during the violence which resulted in at least 30 people requiring medical treatment.

A police constable sustained a twisted knee and a chipped tooth after being hit with a metal object.

“Another constable sustained a broken jaw after he was hit with a brick and a fence paling,’’ NSW police said.

Two other men who intervened inside the church were treated in hospital for minor injuries.

The teen suspect underwent surgery on Monday night for a hand injury sustained when witnesses held him down on the floor. Rumours swirled amongst the community that the boy’s finger had been cut off.

Acting Assistant Commissioner Andrew Holland said: “His injuries are quite severe in his hand, he’s fairly upset and fairly distraught.’’

In a post shared to the church’s Instagram page on Monday night, a spokesman asked the mob of angry protesters to ‘‘leave in peace’’ and pray for both the victims and for the teenage suspect.

“We ask for your prayers at this time,” a post shared to the Church’s instagram just before midnight on Monday.

“It is the Bishop and Father’s wishes that you also pray for the perpetrator.’’

Stab victim is divisive TikTok figure

Footage posted online showed the attacker criticising Mr Emmanuel’s comments about Islam while pinned to the ground by the congregation.

Mr Emmanuel is a social media star with followers around the world – but he is also divisive.

His sermons range from homilies on the Bible to fiery criticisms of homosexuality, Covid vaccinations, Islam and Joe Biden’s election as US president.

The 53-year-old bishop, who has a popular youth following on TikTok and was awarded by YouTube in 2023 for hitting 100,000 subscribers, has been a target for criticism, hate and online trolling.

In some sermons posted online and shared widely, Mr Emmanuel questions parts of Islamic theology, although in others he stresses his love for the Muslim community and how he regularly prays for them. In a recent post he expressed support for Palestinians in Gaza.

In other sermons, Mr Emmanuel took aim at the secular world, casting doubt on Mr Biden’s election, attacking his support for gay rights and urging Donald Trump to stay true to God and resist the influence of Freemasons.

Mr Emmanuel’s popularity peaked during the pandemic because his sermons were online, according to Mary Anoya, 17, whose family attends his church. She, like the other students at her high school, prefer to watch his sermons on TikTok.

“I think everyone follows him on TikTok,” said Miss Anoya on Tuesday outside the church.

“Ever since he started to become famous his words just got twisted. I grew up knowing who he was, I know what type of person he is and it’s all just taken out of context.”

Residents who spoke with Reuters said the violent outrage that followed the attack on Mr Emmanuel, which saw an angry crowd throw rocks and bricks at police, reflected fears about religious persecution by many in the community which is popular with Christians from Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon, some of whom fled their homeland because of their faith.

“We’ve been persecuted for generations,” said Chris, who asked for his last name not to be used for fear of retribution.

“Enough is enough, a priest can’t be touched. I’m not speaking about retaliation but the Australian government must play a role so no persecution is tolerated.”

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