Ash Wednesday was particularly significant for Auburn Uniting Church in 2006. Its charred hall is a sombre reminder of December 14 last year, when the building was burnt down in the early hours of the morning.]

The fire occurred during the aftermath of the Cronulla Riots, making front page news as many associated the incident with the religious and racial tension at the time.

A special Ash Wednesday service was held on March 1 at Auburn Uniting Church to reflect on the past few months and celebrate the first day of the Lenten season.

To show solidarity, members of the local Muslim community attended, including a group of girls from the Gallipoli Mosque youth discussion group who donated $500 that they had raised to help rebuild the church hall.

“When Auburn Uniting Church hall burnt down we were all so saddened,” said Nazli Akyil, one of the fundraisers. “Islam teaches ‘be good to your neighbour’. We thought we must put this into action.”

In return, members from the Auburn parish presented the girls with traditional Tongan mats.

Also in attendance was Mehmet Saral, Secretary/Director of the Affinity Intercultural Foundation.

Affinity’s main aim is to build bridges between faith traditions through inter-faith dialogue and education. The organisation, begun by young Australian Muslims in 2001, holds seminars to inform the general public about the Muslim community, its religion and culture.

Mr Saral said that it was a fitting time to come as the service fell within the Islamic month of Muharram, a time for visiting neighbours and building community.

During Muharram, Ashura Pudding (also known as Noah’s Pudding) is distributed as part of the process of visitation.

Those attending the service were offered Ashura Pudding on their way out of the church.

It was not the first time that the community had come together in the name of peace.

On December 16, representatives from the Uniting Church in Australia (including the Moderator of the New South Wales Synod, Jim Mein, and the national President, Dean Drayton) stood alongside Muslim leaders and parish members at the site of the fire to pray together and condemn violence. After the fire, the congregation had been in shock, but the December 16 meeting did much to restore community morale.

“A lot of people were very quiet and didn’t talk too much,” said Auburn parish secretary Taiosisi Sikuea. “The message was very clear that day that violence was not going to prevail; we have to retaliate with peace. And then we have to stick together and work this out together.”

That sentiment was echoed by Affinity.

“We want to show the Australian public that Muslims are not destroyers; we are builders of peace,” said Mr Saral.

“We want to show that we embrace our local members `from the Uniting Church who have gone through a tough Nazil Akyil presents the Rev. Mele Fakahua-Ratcliffe with a period. We want to help them, just as they would help us if something bad happened to us. This is how the religious community should be working.” A committee has been formed to begin work on rebuilding the hall, but it will be at least 18 months before the building process begins.

“This is like a blessing in disguise for us in some ways,” said Ms Taiosisi. “It’ll be a lot of hard work to get the hall going, but it’s probably a chance for us to get a new hall. We try to look at it positively that way”.
Lyndal Irons