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Second high-profile stabbing to rock Sydney in recent days is declared a terrorist attack

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LA Post: Second high-profile stabbing to rock Sydney in recent days is declared a terrorist attack
April 16, 2024
MARK BAKER and ROD McGUIRK - AP

SYDNEY (AP) — A teenager has been accused of wounding a Christian bishop and priest during a church service in a second high-profile knife attack to rock Sydney in recent days that authorities on Tuesday declared an act of terrorism.

The 16-year-old was overpowered by the shocked congregation at Christ the Good Shepherd Church after he allegedly stabbed Bishop Mar Mari Emmanuel and Fr. Isaac Royel during a service on Monday night that was being streamed online.

Police have not commented on reports that the boy’s fingers were severed by parishioners in the Orthodox Assyrian church in suburban Wakeley, but confirmed his hand injuries were “severe.”

Video of the attack spread quickly on social media and an angry mob converged on the church demanding vengeance. They hurled bricks and bottles at police, who temporarily barricaded the boy inside the church for his own safety.

Several people including police officers required hospital treatment following the hourslong riot.

Police and community leaders said that public anxiety had been heightened by a lone assailant’s knife attack in a Sydney shopping mall on Saturday that killed five women and a male security guard who attempted to intervene. The 40-year-old assailant Joel Cauchi had a history of mental illness. He was shot dead by police.

News South Wales Police Commissioner Karen Webb on Tuesday declared the church attack a terrorist incident, but not the shopping mall rampage.

The terrorism categorization allows more law enforcement resources to be focused on the crime. The declaration also gives police expanded powers to stop and search people, premises and vehicles without a warrant.

Webb said the teen's comments and actions pointed to a religious motive for the attack. She didn’t detail the wording of the comments that led her to believe he had been religiously motivated.

“We believe there are elements that are satisfied in terms of religious-motivated extremism and of course the intimidation of the public through that person’s acts, by attending that church, whilst it was being live-streamed, intimidating not only the parishioners in attendance but those parishioners who were watching online and subsequently, those people that turned up to the church on the outside and the subsequent riot that happened,” Webb said.

The Australian Security Intelligence Organization, the nation’s main domestic spy agency, and Australian Federal Police have joined state police in a counterterrorism task force to investigate who else was potentially involved.

ASIO director-general Mike Burgess agreed with Webb that the mall attack was not terrorism.

To call it a terrorist attack, there must be “information or evidence that suggests actually the motivation was religiously motivated or ideologically motivated,” Burgess said. “In the case of Saturday, that was not the case. In this case, the information we and the police have before us ... would indicate strongly that that is the case and that’s why it was called an act of terrorism."

A coronial inquest will investigate the circumstances of the six knife deaths in the mall attack and what policy changes could be made to prevent similar attacks from occurring in the future. The coroner will also consider whether security guards should be armed. Westfield Bondi Junction mall guards, including knife victim Faraz Tahir, do not carry guns.

New South Wales Premier Chris Minns said he was reviewing government restrictions on how security guards could be armed following the knife attack. But he has ruled out allowing them to carry guns, saying the fewer firearms in the community, the better.

Mass killings are relatively rare in Australia because assault rifle-style semi-automatic firearms are banned from public ownership under tough national gun laws.

The risk of a terrorist attack in Australia is rated as “possible,” according to ASIO's tier system. That is the second-lowest level after “not expected” on the five-tier National Terrorism Threat Advisory System. The threat was downgraded from middle-tier “probable” in 2022 with the decline of the Islamic State group.

Webb said the teen suspect in the church attack had been known to police, but had not been on a terror watch list. He had been convicted in January of a range of offenses including possession of a switchblade knife, being armed with a weapon with an intention to commit an indictable offence, stalking, intimidation and damaging property, Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported.

A Sydney court released him on a good behavior bond, the ABC reported.

The boy used a switchblade, which is an illegal weapon in Australia, in Monday’s attack, the ABC reported.

Juvenile offenders cannot be publicly identified in New South Wales.

The church in a message on social media said the bishop and priest were in stable condition and asked for people’s prayers.

“It is the bishop’s and father’s wishes that you also pray for the perpetrator,” the statement said.

The church said in a statement on Tuesday the 53-year-old Iraq-born bishop’s condition was “improving.”

Emmanuel has a strong social media following and is outspoken on a range of issues. He proselytizes to both Jews and Muslims and is critical of liberal Christian denominations.

He also speaks out on global political issues and laments the plight of Palestinians in Gaza.

The bishop, described in local media as a figure sometimes seen as divisive on issues such as COVID-19 restrictions, was in the national news last year over comments about gender.

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McGuirk reported from Melbourne, Australia.

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