Religious rights group Christian Lives Matter was born in a sterile Strathfield office in 2017, when the marriage equality vote prompted a group of conservative Catholics, many of them from the Maronite church, to unite over fears that children would be corrupted by the “alphabet” [LGBTQ] agenda creeping into the mainstream.
Their resistance would involve prayers, protests and rosary beads. They would be loud, vigilant and outspoken, but not violent; they resolved to “stay united, stay strong, pray and just be aware,” one attendee told the Herald on the condition of anonymity. Six years later, the group has 18,000 Instagram followers, its own merchandise and a growing public profile.
It is part of an expanding religious rights movement in Sydney, which overlaps with anti-vaccination and conspiracy networks. Powered by anger over mainstream attitudes to faith, some activists are becoming militant and are using the language of religious crusade. One faction wears T-shirts branded with a cross and the words “defenders of the faith”. Another calls itself Milites Dei, the Latin term for “soldiers of God”.
Mounting tension boiled over into violence on Tuesday night, when a group of pro-trans protesters were attacked outside St Michael’s church in the south-west suburb of Belfield. The church was hosting a speech by One Nation leader Mark Latham, whose promotion of religious freedom and the view that parents have the right to prevent their children being exposed to “transgender ideology” has drawn support from conservative Christian groups.
Police took the shocked and bruised protesters a few blocks away to catch taxis. As they waited, religious activists drove past, filming themselves shouting out of their car windows, saying, “F— off back to Newtown … don’t come back to this area, you grubs.” To police, they said; “What will you do if they come for your kids?” The protesters have since been harassed online. One was told he was a “dead man walking”.
Christian Lives Matter founder Charlie Bakhos distanced himself, saying he was praying the rosary at the time and did not know 90 per cent of those involved in the violence. He has also distanced himself online from earlier protests. CLM did, however, organise protests over a joke made by comedian Reuben Kaye about Jesus in late February.
But Christian Sukkar, a Bankstown carpenter who has spoken at rallies involving CLM, was charged over a video he posted of himself the day before, saying protesters should be dragged “by the hair”. Sukkar has posted many videos on his social media pages, urging the faithful to fight and demanding church leaders back them up. “Where are the bishops, where are the leaders?” he told one protest, specifically naming Maronite Bishop Antoine-Charbel Tarabay, as supporters held placards supporting a fight for “what’s right”.
The CLM member who attended the founding meeting, and backed the original members as non-violent and devout – “Maronite Catholics [an Eastern rite church, prominent in Lebanon] are much more staunch” – said fury was mounting, and things were getting messy. “Of late I’ve seen it take a turn,” he said. “There’s so much anger.”
Tarabay and Catholic Bishop Anthony Fisher have both condemned the violence. In a statement, Tarabay said the crisis not only involved ideology, religion and politics, but “the experience of so many who feel their concerns are being repeatedly cast aside or overlooked,” he said. “I acknowledge that the individuals and groups involved feel they are being discriminated against and overlooked, and that their concerns are unheard.”
Tarabay called on governments to help to find a way forward. “Of importance is what is happening in schools, particularly related to teachings on gender and identity, and what children are being exposed to, without the genuine consultation of parents and guardians, and without regard for their concerns,” he said.
Trans people in western Sydney are worried. Imogen Loxley has been attacked before, and said recent events – including a clash over trans rights in Melbourne, in which black-clad men used the Nazi salute – have renewed her trauma. “It’s still happening and it’s really scary,” she said. “It’s extremely hurtful. Some of the comments and some of the videos I’ve seen make me physically sick. I have always had the heart, mind and soul of a female, since I was two.”
Experts on extremism say religious militants are driven by the same grievances espoused by other far-right movements, such as distrust of institutions and fears that social change – the rights of women, LGBTQ and trans people – is undermining masculinity. They say a shared concern that COVID vaccines were developed using lab-grown cells that were based on aborted foetal cells collected generations ago, brought hardline Christians, Muslims and Evangelicals together during the pandemic.
“They felt [the COVID vaccine] was sacrificing a life, essentially at odds with their world view,” said Associate Professor Josh Roose, an expert in politics, religion and extremism at Deakin University.
Roose said Sydney’s Catholic conservatives are among the most hardline in the Western world and the clash at Belfield should be seen as “Catholocist” violence.
“Religion no longer has the sway it once had, the church doesn’t structure society in a way they’re comfortable with … They feel they’re facing an existential threat,” he said. “It sounds remarkably similar to the guys who wanted to go off and fight a jihad to defend Islam. It takes these guys from their mundane lives and turns them into warriors and heroes, protectors of their faith.”
An anti-fascist researcher, known only as “Sam” to protect their identity, has followed CLM since its early days, when it cheered on the painting over of pro-gay murals, like one of “Saint” George Michael in Newtown. They noticed a shift to anti-vaccination, anti-government sentiment during lockdown, and describes the group as a potentially dangerous one that can organise quickly.
The group’s aims and methods are not singular, Sam said. Members disagree on how forceful they should be, and distance themselves from one another when they do not align. Sukkar told his own followers, in a video posted before the Belfield clash, that if they “want to pray the rosary” they should go do that with CLM leader Charlie Bakhos.
Latham has condemned the violence outside the church but reiterated his stance that the “leftie alphabet activists … only fear me [of all politicians]. I stand in their way. As we saw at a Sydney suburban church on Tuesday, where these political weirdos provoked a riot. To protect your children and your parental rights, vote 1 for my One Nation team on Saturday at this NSW election.”
Late on Thursday, one of the CLM organisers posted a video, telling followers they needed to get Latham, One Nation and [right-wing former federal MP] Craig Kelly into power. He said he supported a meeting between CLM and the pro-trans protesters attacked on Tuesday night because “violence will get us nowhere … we can’t fight digital currency, we can’t fight one world order and all that crap … keep your focus on the cause we are going for, which is our kids.”
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