Australian PM John Howard has refused to cut ties with the controversial Catch the Fire Ministries despite its leader’s links the far right League of Rights group. Church leader Danny Nalliah has addressed the holocaust-denial group in 2005 (pictured) and has accepted another invite to address the league again. Nalliah has had private audiences with Howard and Treasurer Peter Costello. Howard described the League of Rights as “a bit anti-Semitic,” but said he could not be responsible for what the people he meets do. Nalliah is unrepentant. "I would not change my view. I stand by it," he told The Age. "I am a Christian minister — my task is to go after the sinner, not cast away the sinner. There is no one beyond redemption".
Grahame Leonard, the president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, said Nalliah’s view were naive "at best" given the league's anti-Semitic stance. He also cautiously chastised Howard, who has long been a staunch supporter of Israel. “We would urge all our politicians to publicly distance themselves from the pastor and his views,” he said. The B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation Commission and the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council also criticised Nalliah’s decision to accept the league’s invitation.
This is not the first time Nalliah has run into trouble with racial vilification. In January 2004, Nalliah fell foul of Victoria’s controversial Racial and Religious Tolerance Act in the first case before the Victorian Civil and Administration Tribunal (VCAT). VCAT found against him for vilifying Muslims. The tribunal said that he was one of two pastors to suggest the Koran promoted murder and looting, Muslims wanted to take over Australia and terrorists were true Muslims. However the Victorian Supreme Court overturned the verdict last year saying the Act does not “mandate religious tolerance”.
Religious tolerance is not something anyone can accuse the Sri Lankan born Nalliah. In 2004 he was the second person on the Family First ticket for the Federal Senate election in Victoria. During the campaign Nalliah called on his followers to “pull down Satan's strongholds”. These strongholds included bottle shops, brothels, casinos, gambling places, mosques and temples. Nalliah wasn’t talking about Christian temples, he meant Freemason, Buddhist and Hindu ones. While party chair Peter Harris distanced himself from these comments, Nalliah's rhetoric had results. Steve Fielding - the man ahead of Nalliah on the ticket - was successfully elected.
Danny Nalliah was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, in 1964. In his early years he played in a band in Colombo. After “finding God” Nalliah began to preach to congregations in Sri Lanka and Saudi Arabia. He arrived in Australia in 1997 and founded Catch the Fire Ministries soon afterwards. The group is associated with the Pentecostalist Assemblies of God and has grown to be one of the largest Pentecostal churches in the country. Ten thousand people get the Catch the Fire newsletter and Nalliah is now head of Rise Up Australia, a national prayer group with over a hundred affiliated churches.
On Australia Day this year, Nalliah held a service at Melbourne’s Festival Hall, a venue normally reserved for rock concerts. Prime Minister John Howard agreed to provide a DVD message for the service. Margaret Simons described the event in her book “Faith, Money and Power”. The venue was bedecked in Australian flags and Catch the Fire’s flame-coloured banners. A choir sang on a stage backdropped by pictures of Uluru. An usherette danced in the aisle while waving a flag. Simons instinctively recognised a dangerous combination of religious and nationalistic fervour.
Nalliah spoke to the assembled audience. His speech on this occasion was benign but fitted in with the theme. He praised the “freedom of Australia”, thanked the armed forces serving overseas, emergency services fighting bushfires and prayed for the country’s leaders. He was followed on stage by other pastors and then some students, one of whom denounced postmodernism “with its claim that truth is a matter of opinion”.
After an hour and a half Nalliah finally introduced the message from John Howard. Nalliah said that Catch the Fire had also approached Opposition leader Kevin Rudd to send a message but Rudd was unable to do so “because of all his business and travel”. On his DVD speech, Howard spoke of the shared values and of the “great contribution Christianity has made to our country”. He concluded by congratulating Catch the Fire for “bringing Christians from many denominations together for this celebration” and he wished them all a very happy Australia Day. His minute long address was lacklustre and greeted with muted applause and cynical laughter. While Howard was widely criticised for making the DVD, the audience didn’t care about it at all. Simons said many had left the auditorium before the speech ended.
Nalliah has not decided to stand for election this time round. However the pastor has thrown his support behind the Prime Minister and his heir apparent Peter Costello. In a letter sent to the Catch the Fire faithful, he said the Lord had told him to meet personally with Howard and Costello. There Nalliah was to “prophetically prepare Federal Treasurer Peter Costello as the future Prime Minister of Australia”. Nalliah met Costello on 9 August and Howard one day later. Unfortunately he could not share the timing of the Costello handover with his flock or disclose what else transpired in the meetings. But whatever he said, it had resonance. Howard continues to stand by Danny Nalliah despite his racist rants.