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Islamic leader accused of illegal land clearing claims his group is exempt from Australian law

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A religious leader accused of illegal land clearing on a rural property used for religious prayer has claimed a Western Sydney council is infringing on his group’s religious freedoms by pursuing him over the allegations.

Hawkesbury City Council has launched civil action against Dr Mustapha Kara-Ali and Diaa Kara-Ali in the Land and Environment Court, alleging they carried out illegal land clearing, earthworks and built gates, fences and driveways without seeking any of the relevant development approvals at a property in Colo, in Sydney’s north west.

Mustapha Kara-Ali, a former member of then Prime Minister John Howard’s Muslim Community Reference Group and past postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University, is the Imam of religious guild Diwan Al Dawla.

A letter he wrote to a council staff member, filed in the court documents, says the members of the guild live “separated from secular lifestyles to pursue a religious mode of worship and an ascetic lifestyle under an oath of self-sacrifice and dedication to the purposes of Diwan Al Dawla”.

The Colo property was owned by the members of Diwan Al Dawla and used “for the carrying out of religious activities of devotion, self-discipline, ritual baptism, inter-community prayers, contemplation and religious study,” the letter said.

A council compliance officer visited the property in October last year following an anonymous complaint to find land clearing, including a number of large native trees and the removal of metal waste, according to court documents.

Over the following months, more complaints were made and council staff returned several times to find people clearing vegetation, knocking down trees and that a main gate, driveways and a boat ramp on the river bank had been built, the documents state.

The Council also issued a $8,000 fine for pollution or potential pollution caused by failed sediment erosion fencing.

The property is actually owned by Southern Chariot Stud, of which Diaa Kara-Ali is the director.

But Diaa Kara-Ali’s correspondence, filed to the court, states the Stud owns it in trust for Diwan Al Dawla, and that Mustapha Kara-Ali is responsible for all works being undertaken.

Conflict escalates

The conflict between council and the Kara-Alis came to a head last month when three council officers visited the property to provide them with court papers.

A dashcam video tendered to the court shows a man, standing beside Mustapha Kara-Ali, spitting on council staff and attempting to throw a large rock, which hits the fence and then falls to the ground.

“Both men were repeatedly yelling obscenities from the other side of the gate, calling out ‘you dogs, I step on your cross’,” one of the council staff alleged in an affidavit.

“The unknown male person said ‘I spit on you’. He then lunged his head forward towards me and spat at me.”

Religious charity ‘not required to comply’ with law

When the council wrote to Mustapha Kara-Ali directing him to remove a boat ramp and retaining walls at the property, he responded by claiming his organisation was exempt from Australian law because it was classed as a basic religious charity.

“The Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) Act 2012 stipulates that when it is carrying out religious activities that are related to the practice, study, teaching or propagation of its religious beliefs, or other activities ancillary to them … Diwan Al Dawla, as a basic religious charity is not required to comply with Australian laws,” he wrote.

“As the Imam of Diwan Al Dawla and its spiritual leader, I, therefore, ask the Hawkesbury City Council to revoke its letter … on the basis that its demands infringe upon our religious freedom and tamper with our mode of worship in contravention of our ACNC status as a Basic Religious Charity.”

An ACNC spokesperson said basic religious charities did not have to comply with the ACNC Governance Standards.

“However, the exemption of basic religious charities from complying with the Governance Standards does not mean that they do not have to comply with Australian laws,” the spokesperson said.

“A registered charity cannot have a purpose of engaging in or promoting unlawful activity — this can be grounds for revocation of charity status.”

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