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Police in Australia have arrested a 15-year-old boy over a knife attack on a bishop and his followers at an Orthodox Assyrian church in Sydney, declaring the assault a “terrorist” act motivated by suspected religious extremism.

The attack, which took place as a service at Christ The Good Shepherd Church and was being livestreamed on Monday evening, wounded Bishop Mar Mari Emmanuel and a priest. Both are expected to survive.

Police arrested the teenager at the scene and were forced to hold him at the church for his own safety as an angry crowd of the bishop’s followers gathered outside.

The crowd went on to clash with the police for more than three hours, demanding that the attacker be handed over to them.

Emergency crews said they treated 30 people for riot-related injuries.

New South Wales Police Commissioner Karen Webb, speaking to reporters on Tuesday, said the suspect’s comments pointed to a religious motive for the attack.

“We’ll allege there’s a degree of premeditation on the basis that this person has travelled to that location, which is not near his residential address, he has travelled with a knife and subsequently the bishop and the priest have been stabbed,” Webb said. “They’re lucky to be alive.”

She added, “After consideration of all the material, I declared that it was a terrorist incident.”

The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), the nation’s main domestic spy agency, and Australian Federal Police have joined state police in a counterterrorism task force to investigate whether anyone else was involved.

Mike Burgess, the director-general of ASIO, in rare public comments said that the boy appeared to have acted alone and there was no immediate need to raise the country’s terror threat level.

“At this stage, it looks like the actions of an individual,” he said. “At this point, there is no indication of anyone else involved, but that remains an open investigation.”

Police officers hospitalised after riot

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,” it added.

Bishop Emmanuel has a significant following online with his livestreamed sermons attracting a global audience and his video clips racking up hundreds of thousands of views. He became well known for his hardline views during the COVID pandemic when he described lockdowns as “mass slavery”, media reported at the time.

During Monday’s service, worshippers watched in horror as a person in black clothes approached the altar and stabbed the bishop and priest Isaac Royel.

Police said the congregation overpowered the suspect after the attack.

A crowd of hundreds seeking revenge gathered outside the church later, hurling bricks and bottles, wounding police officers and preventing them from taking the teen outside, officials said. He was only brought out after more than 100 police reinforcements arrived at the church.

Acting Assistant Police Commissioner Andrew Holland said the teen suspect and at least two police officers were admitted to hospital. When asked if the teen’s fingers had been severed, he said the hand injuries were “severe”.

Several police vehicles were also damaged, he said.

“A number of houses have been damaged. They’ve broken into a number of houses to gain weapons to throw at the police. They’ve thrown weapons and items at the church itself. There were obviously people who wanted to get access to the young person who caused the injuries to the clergy people,” he said.

Responding to the attack, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said, “There is no place for violence in our community. There’s no place for violent extremism.”

He added, “We’re a peace-loving nation. This is a time to unite, not divide, as a community, and as a country.”

The attack came two days after a man with a knife killed six people and wounded more than a dozen others at a shopping mall in Sydney’s Bondi Junction, before being shot dead by police. The attacker mostly targeted women.

New South Wales Premier Chris Minns issued a joint statement with Christian and Muslim leaders calling for calm.

“We’re calling on everyone to act with kindness and respect for each other”, the statement said. “Now is the time to show that we are strong and united.”

Minns, speaking at a news conference later, also urged people to not take the law into their hands after the attack on police.

“You will be met by the full force of the law if there’s any attempt for tit-for-tat violence in Sydney over the coming days,” he said.

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