A BIG red Father Christmas, a sleigh and reindeers, sit on a Metcalfe Street, Wallsend, house roof, overlooking its neighbour, the Newcastle Mosque.
It could be any leafy street in any Newcastle suburb.
On this hot summer day a cat snoozes on a fence, a young man in a Bundaberg Rum T-shirt, with the words Rum Rebellion emblazoned on it, wanders past the historic building that is a spiritual centre for many Hunter Muslims.
For more than 20 years, the mosque has been nestled into Wallsend suburbia.
The "local", the Colliery Inn Hotel, is down the hill. Next door is a 1920s Masonic hall, which takes the overflow when the mosque is full for prayers on a Friday, the Islamic holy day. And up the street are three Christian churches, one of which, the Uniting Church, lends its car park to accommodate the hundreds of people who come to pray here every Friday.
But it's time to move from this homely address.
"Our reason for moving is lack of space," said Diana Rah, a spokeswoman for the Newcastle Muslim Association.
"When the community was smaller the impact of the parking was smaller but we don't want to have an impact on the neighbours."
In the past, the community has used converted buildings such as the one at Wallsend for its growing congregation.
But that is likely to change. In September, the association lodged plans with Newcastle City Council to build a multimillion-dollar religious complex on a 8300-square-metre block in Elermore Vale.
If approved, the present proposals will create a regional centre for the Islamic community.
Rah's fellow Muslim Bikash Paul said most days only small numbers of people used the Wallsend mosque, but on a Friday, up to 300 people attended.
"People have started to complain now so the time is up," Paul said.
The Hunter is thought to be home to about 1000 Muslims but that figure could be much higher because of the large number of Muslim students who attend the University of Newcastle.
Most were of the Sunni sect, Paul said. Islam was split into two main sub-groups, Sunni and Shia, on the death by poison of the prophet Mohammed in 632, when there was a fight over leadership of the faith.
The association moved to Wallsend when its Silsoe Street, Mayfield, mosque was damaged in the 1989 earthquake.
In 2007, there was a rift in the Wallsend congregation and another Sunni mosque, the Sultan Faith Mosque, opened in a former Salvation Army citadel at Mayfield.
The Mayfield mosque, like the one at Wallsend, is little changed, apart from the scourge of graffiti.
All Muslims would be free to use the new complex, Paul said.
Rah, a Newcastle-raised convert from Christianity to Islam, said the foreign students were the main reason Newcastle's Muslim population had increased.
THE proposed complex's Croudace Road site has been described as one of the last pieces of bushland in the suburb and is about 50 metres from the car park of the Elermore Vale shopping centre.
The development's estimated value is at more than $6 million and includes a mosque, a two-storey, 166- space car park , a large community hall, a residence and funeral ceremony room.
Residents group Elermore Vale Community for Appropriate Residential and Environmental Strategies, or EV CARES, and other individuals have objected on the grounds of the development's scale, inappropriate location, traffic congestion and a failure to adequately assess its social impact.
They insist the protest is not against the Islamic religion.
Australia and Islam have co-existed for hundreds of years, from the time of the Afghan cameleers who helped open up outback Australia, to more recent arrivals.
But migration has changed the face of Islam in Australia.
Rah said the Hunter Muslim population came from 28 countries.
The 2006 Census revealed there were more than 340,000 Muslims in Australia, of whom 128,904 were born in Australia.
The creation of Islamic prayer centres to service Australia's growing Muslim population has caused friction.
Debate over an Islamic school development at Camden, south of Sydney, became very heated. The proposal was turned down in 2008 on the grounds it was not in keeping with the area's rural character and heritage, and the Muslim community lost a subsequent appeal.
EV CARES vice-president, retired University of Newcastle academic Steve Beveridge, said a mosque was acceptable but the complex of large buildings could cause "horrendous" consequences.
"The community hall of 1000 square metres is not for the community of Elermore Vale," Beveridge said.
"It will have a very negative impact on the quality of lifestyle."
Rah, 57, and Paul, 45, said the public would be welcome to visit the new complex if it was approved.
"People will be able to come to know us. We want to be transparent and open," Rah said.
She said the site - bought for a reported $1.3 million - was appropriate because it was low-lying and the buildings would not dominate the surroundings.
Residents say the site's bowl-like topography will increase noise, especially as activities at the complex will extend from 4am to 11pm.
Rah said there would not be a public address system for the traditional call to prayer and that complaints from residents about a high wall or fence surrounding the buildings were not warranted.
The fence in existing proposals was suggested by Newcastle council, Paul said, and the final structure would be determined by the planning process.
A planned funeral ceremony building will be used only for washing bodies of the dead and prayers. Rah and Paul said the bodies would come in a normal way from hospitals or funeral directors to be washed. The prayers would last about six minutes and then the remains would be taken for burial in Islamic cemeteries at Sandgate and Maitland.
Ideally, Muslims require burial within 24 hours of death.
The plans - first announced in February this year - led to anti-Muslim letterbox drops.
Newcastle councillor Shayne Connell has tried to establish a mediation process to defuse the conflict and explain the approval process (see inset).
Connell said he had received many calls in support of the development based on the concept of "freedom of religion".
"Residents have legitimate concerns about technical aspects of the development," he said, adding that the suitability of the site was one of the "key issues".
There are believed to be between 900 and 1000 objections to the development.
David Glover, 74, of Rankin Park, said he left Sydney because of the changing ethnic community in his former neighbourhood of Epping.
One by one his neighbours left and the new residents did not speak English.
"They either couldn't or wouldn't communicate," Glover said.
He said his new neighbours were mostly from Asian countries and might not have been Muslims.
"I felt a stranger in my own area."
Glover, a Catholic who admitted his religion had a history of violence, said he thought the location of the mosque was "provocative".
"I would love to be tolerant," Glover said. "But here in Elermore Vale, why did they choose this site?"
Rah said the site was the only one in a long search that met the association's core requirements: enough space to provide for on-site parking, access to public transport and proximity to the university and John Hunter Hospital, where many Muslims worked.
Glover said he knew his comments would draw accusations that he was "racist".
"The way of life I value is disappearing," he said. "When you have fundamentalism you don't have common ground."
In contrast is the view of Lyn Rendle, also of Rankin Park.
"A mosque is a church. Please do not be threatened by churchgoing people moving to our neighbourhood," she wrote in a letter to the Herald.
"I am a fourth generation Anglo Saxon Christian and was raised to respect any belief genuinely held, to value tolerance and to accept the many cultures our lucky country has to offer."
The Anglican Bishop of Newcastle Brian Farran said the association had the "right" to build the complex if it met the development criteria.
"The supremacy of the Christian religion in the Western world has passed," he said.
"This [the complex] is a new experience for the Hunter."
He said so far, there had been very little contact between the Anglican church and other religions in Newcastle and this should change.
During his former tenure in Western Australia, he had had a close relationship with Perth's mosque, he said.
"Knowledge and conversation is a great way to dispel needless anxiety."
Glover said the Auburn Gallipoli mosque in suburban Sydney had open days for the public and something similar in Newcastle would be a good idea.
A lecturer in theology at the University of Newcastle, Dr Timothy Stanley, said although he was new to the city, he believed protests like the one in Elermore Vale were linked to the migration debate in Australia and the big migrations of people the world was experiencing.
"And they [migrants] bring their religions with them," Stanley said. "Religion pushes discourse in cultural life."
Debates over the wearing of the full-face veil or burqa and head scarves in Europe - France banned the burqa this year, and last year Switzerland voted against minarets on mosques - were about rights and freedom under the law, Stanley said.
Stanley, whose position is funded by the Anglican Diocese of Newcastle, said as adherents of Islam participated in society, he hoped more moderate forms of the religion would emerge.
The Elermore Vale controversy is a test which the University of Newcastle's pro vice-chancellor education and arts, Professor Terry Lovat, hopes the city will pass.
"We are a fair-go society and we give people a chance to prove themselves," he said.
Because of his work with foreign students at the university, Lovat has close relations with the Gallipoli mosque and its education organisation, Affinity.
Affinity grew out of the conflict and tensions after the attacks on New York's World Trade Centre in 2001.
Lovat thinks the Muslim community can do more to reduce tensions over the development.
There are more than 70 mosques in NSW. Complexity is added to this contentious development because it is private/public infrastructure valued at more than $5 million.
As a result, the consent authority rests with the NSW government's Joint Regional Planning Panel, not Newcastle City Council [see inset].
Councillors Brad Luke and Mike Jackson will be part of the Hunter and Central Coast panel that will determine the complex's development application. [Cr Scott Sharpe will step in if either of the other two are unable to participate.]
Cr Shayne Connell said the public did not understand the panel process and this had further complicated the Elermore Vale project, as had its proximity to a controversial public housing development.
Connell likened the process to a "black hole" that isolated the public from some of the biggest projects that might affect their neighbourhoods.