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Dispute between rival Assyrian groups over a Sydney church leads to confrontation between police and protesters

PAUL MURPHY: A dispute over a church turned into a nasty confrontation between police and hundreds of protesters at the Supreme Court in Sydney this afternoon. The crowd was forced out of the ground floor of the court this morning after brawls broke out. The demonstration moved to nearby Parliament House, only to return to the Supreme Court this afternoon, and our ethnic affairs reporter, Karim Barbara, was there.

KARIM BARBARA: At the root of all this is a church. It was built in 1974 in Sydney's west by the 3,000 strong Assyrian Orthodox community. The church, and other assets, have been so far managed by the New South Wales Parish Association of the Holy Apostolic Catholic Church of the East, which is the congregation's official name. The association is registered as a company.

In 1984, a bishop was appointed to lead the community. Mar Meelis Zaia represents an American-based patriarch. There are two poles of power in the centuries old Assyrian Church - one lies in the United States and the other in Iraq - and it sounds like a well-marked division. This schism goes back to the sixties, and the reason, disagreement over when to celebrate Christmas. One group pledged allegiance to the tradition of the eastern churches who celebrate Christmas on 7 January; another decided to follow the western calendar and celebrate it on 25 December.

The situation worsened during the following 10 years, then another crisis shook the already divided church. The leader of the western-bound group, American-based patriarch, Mar Shimon, decided to marry, thus breaking clear precepts which impose celibacy on the upper hierarchy of the church. A few years later, Muhammad Shimon was assassinated. Being the head of the US-based church, he was the legal owner of all its properties and assets. All this fortune was inherited by his wife.

Mar Meelis Zaia is the representative of Mar Shimon's successor. On arrival in Australia, he tried to introduce reforms which would bring the Australian Assyrian community in line with the pro-western faction. Backed by around 60 parishioners, he was outvoted by over 900. A priest, elected by the community, continued to service the congregation while the bishop was denied access even to the place of worship. Last September, he took the local group to court to have his authority asserted, and he won. An appeal in April was also lost, and the trustees were given 21 days to vacate the premises. They refused to do so. Last week, a writ of execution was issued, and today the court gave both groups limited access to the premises until an appeal is heard next August.

The Parish Association says it is fighting to keep control over what is practically theirs, assets that they collected over 20 years. They fear handing them to the bishop, as required by the church law, and maybe see them end up under someone else's control.

PAUL MURPHY: A complex dispute. Karim Barbara reporting.