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Believe in Bendigo: Businesswoman Margot Spalding leads campaign to fight anti-mosque 'hate'.

By Janine Cohen.

The businesswoman leading a fight against “intolerance and hate” in Bendigo says the city’s anti-mosque demonstrations must be stopped before they spread across Australia.

The central Victorian city has been the flashpoint for a series of rowdy demonstrations against the construction of a local mosque.

“I very strongly believe that the anti-mosque protesting can be stopped in its tracks here in Bendigo,” Margot Spalding, a former Telstra Business Woman of the Year, told Australian Story.  Following an anti-mosque protest in August, Ms Spalding called a meeting of religious, business and community leaders, and the Believe in Bendigo campaign was launched.

“The idea that people would come to Bendigo from outside and protest about a mosque being built here took a lot of people by surprise,” said Reverend John Roundhill, Dean of the Anglican Church in Bendigo.

“People were not expecting the degree of anger and hate that we witnessed that day.”

bendigo mosque
A Believe in Bendigo rally in support of a local mosque. Image via ABC.

Ultra right-wing group the United Patriots Front (UPF) made Bendigo its location for a second protest in October.

There are reports of plans for more anti-mosque demonstrations in regional cities in Victoria and New South Wales.

UPF spokesperson Blair Cottrell told Australian Story the UPF “would go where we are needed”.

There are about 300 Muslims in Bendigo, many of whom are doctors, dentists, nurses, factory workers and university students.

They currently worship in a small crowded room at the local La Trobe University Campus.

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The City of Greater Bendigo approved a permit for a mosque in June last year.

A small group of residents appealed against the decision in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT), but it was dismissed.

The Victorian Supreme Court is now considering a further appeal and has reserved its decision.

Ms Spalding said she does not know “what all the fuss is about”, as there are several mosques in the nearby town of Shepparton.

Ms Spalding, who has received hate mail and whose home has been under police surveillance, said she will not give up because she believes “it is too important for Bendigo and Australia and other regions that a mosque goes ahead”.

Ms Spalding, 62, co-founded Jimmy Possum furniture and employs three Afghan refugees. One of them, Sayed Hussaini, prays in her factory.

“I have the personal view that everybody has the right to pray where they are comfortable,” Ms Spalding said.

“With Sayed and his prayer times, we really don’t take notice anymore because we are just so used to Sayed bobbing up and down over behind the fabric rolls.”

Rohan Donnelly, an upholstery leader at Jimmy Possum, said the factory is a microcosm of Bendigo, with people who support the mosque and those who do not.

“I think it is terribly ironic that the workforce supports the Muslim workers, yet there is great reservation regarding the construction of the mosque to support their religion,” he said.

Bendigo Councillor Helen Leach, who was one of two councillors who voted against the mosque, said she has never known an issue to divide a city like this.

“The message I’m getting from the residents is that they’re afraid that there may be a radical element coming with the mosque, which will endanger their lives or endanger women’s safety,” she said.

Ms Spalding, who has many Muslim friends, strongly disputes this.

“There’s a shocking group of people who are terrorists and out to harm other people but they’re not the Muslim community we are talking about in Bendigo,” she said.

“They despise terrorism just the same as we despise terrorism, [as] they want to live safely here.”

You can watch the full Australian Story report on ABC’s iview.

This post originally appeared on ABC News.

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