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Monday, 21 June 2010
Page: 6052

Mr ANDREWS (7:18 PM) —It is estimated that around 15 per cent of Egypt’s 80 million people are Christians. According to tradition, Christianity was introduced to Alexandria by Saint Mark, making it one of the oldest Christian communities in the world and indeed the oldest in Africa. Originally a reference to Egypt generally, the term ‘Copt’, deriving from the word ‘Aigyptos’, is now used to describe Egyptian Christians. After the Arab invasion of Egypt in the 7th century, the Copts became a minority but remained a significant and prosperous group. Indeed, they remained an important group working with Muslims towards the freedom and independence of Egypt in the early part of last century. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy has noted:

… Christians worked side by side with Muslims in the creation of modern Egypt. In the 1919 uprising against British occupation, Coptic priests were preaching in mosques —including Cairo’s prestigious al-Azhar Mosque —and imams were preaching in churches as a symbol of national unity. The trend continued until the 1950s …

However, during Nasser’s pan-Arab socialist regime the Copts were targeted because of their wealth and were reduced to second-class citizens. Many have emigrated, including a relatively small but significant number to Australia.

During the past three decades of the rule of Hosni Mubarak the discrimination against the Copts has increased. They are regularly targeted for discrimination and have been subjected to increasing violence from Islamist jihadi radicals. One such case occurred when six Christians and an off-duty police officer were massacred as they were leaving a Christmas service in January this year. This follows a series of other incidents in which hundreds of Copts, unfortunately and tragically, have been killed over the last 20 years.

Despite constitutional guarantees of religious freedom, Copts face discrimination and persecution. In practice it is virtually impossible to build or repair their churches. It can be very difficult to obtain travel documentation, and converts to Christianity are unable to alter their ID cards although no such obstacle stands in the way of converts to Islam.

This is not a motion against Islam; it is a motion calling for religious freedom. Egypt is not alone in restricting freedoms, including religious freedom. The persecution of religious minorities, including Christians, Jews, Baha’is and Sunni Muslims in Iran, is an egregious example of such persecution—and the restrictions on Christian churches in China is another.

Egypt has an opportunity to show leadership. It can be a force for toleration and moderation in the Middle East. It can embrace its obligations under international conventions and laws. This would be welcomed by Copts in Egypt, as it would by some 70,000 Copts who have made Australia home but are concerned about the plight of family, friends and associates who remain in Egypt. I join with members of the Coptic community in Melbourne, Sydney and elsewhere in calling on the government to voice its concerns about this matter and to restore the special immigration assistance to Copts that existed under the previous government.