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Tuesday, 20 March 2012
Page: 3660

Ms VAMVAKINOU (Calwell) (19:59): I join with my colleagues in the Federation Chamber in offering my condolences on the passing of His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, the much loved spiritual leader of the world's Coptic Christians and a fierce defender and brave advocate of the rights of Christians in his homeland of Egypt and in the wider Middle East. Pope Shenouda was a holy man, a man who stood tall in adversity. He was courageous and loving but above all a humble man, much loved by Copts around the world and especially here in Australia.

I extend my sincere condolences to His Grace Bishop Suriel of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Melbourne. My condolences also go to the broader Coptic community, especially to my friends and constituents in my electorate of Calwell, whom I have come to know and respect very much through my work in the electorate. Calwell is home to St Mary's Coptic Orthodox College. On my many visits to the school I have come to appreciate the Coptic community's dedication to education. This is a highly educated community that places a high value on learning and self-betterment. It is also a deeply devout community, whose Coptic Christian faith lies at the heart of its identity. I know how important the spiritual nurturing of the students at St Mary's is. It is a nurturing that is guided by the commitment and love of Father Tadros and the staff at St Mary's Coptic school. I extend my condolences to them. I know that the students of St Mary's will be mourning their beloved Pope, because His Holiness had a deep affection for children and as a learned man himself invested very strongly in education.

Deep faith is a significant part of the Coptic identity, and nowhere is this more evident than in the surrounds of the Melbourne Coptic Orthodox monastery in Donvale, purchased for the Coptic Diocese by the community under the leadership of Bishop Suriel. It is a very beautiful building and is a wonderful place for parishioners and visitors alike. I speak about the monastery because it has indeed become a symbol of Coptic faith and a safe refuge for Coptic Australians, who well appreciate the freedoms they enjoy in this country—their new home Australia. They enjoy the freedom to express their identity and pursue their faith without fear or persecution.

The same, however, cannot be said about their Coptic brothers and sisters living in Egypt, whom they have never forgotten or abandoned, especially in their hour of need—and there have been many hours of need in the history of Egypt's Coptics, most recently the persecution that occurred in the lead-up to and aftermath of the Egyptian uprising that began about a year ago. The House has heard on a number of occasions about the indiscriminate killings of innocent Copts, the burning of churches and the slaying of Coptic priests. In fact, it was just last year that I attended a prayer vigil in Federation Square to protest against the killings that had taken place during the Egyptian uprising. The vigil was attended by dozens of community leaders and hundreds of people, including a broad coalition of Christian churches, who stood together with Bishop Suriel in support of Coptic Christians. This unity of Christian churches was something Pope Shenouda championed and affirmed and was recognised by Roman Catholic Pope Benedict, who recalled with gratitude Pope Shenouda's commitment to Christian unity.

His Holiness Pope Shenouda was never far from his flock, and the Coptic community in faraway Australia drew strength and inspiration from his leadership, especially his leadership on the defence of human rights. He himself spent a period of time in jail in the course of advocating and defending the human rights of his people. Pope Shenouda first visited Australia in November 1989. His Holiness met with the then Prime Minister Bob Hawke, with premiers of New South Wales and Victoria and with senior government and civic leaders.

It was during one of his subsequent visits to Australia that I had the privilege of meeting him. In fact, I had just become the member for Calwell and was invited to attend one of the welcoming events put on for him by the Coptic community in Melbourne. I had never seen such a devout and dedicated community. The affection they had for Pope Shenouda was indeed palpable, such was his charisma and, at the same time, his humility. Pope Shenouda's spiritual contribution to his flock was highly regarded and respected. His life's achievements are a reflection of the enormous contribution the Coptic community has made to Australia.

The Coptics are an established and educated community, who never cease to give back to the country they now call home. Pope Shenouda was a man larger than life with deeply held convictions. He died on 17 March 2012 of lung and liver complications, at the age of 88. During the night of his death an estimated 10,000 mourners were said to have visited his body at St Mark's Cathedral. The international reaction to the Pope's passing came from all parts of the globe.

I would like to finish by quoting President Barack Obama, who, immediately after the announcement of the death of Pope Shenouda said:

We will remember Pope Shenouda III as a man of deep faith, a leader of a great faith, and an advocate for unity and reconciliation.

He further said that Pope Shenouda was:

… a beloved leader of Egypt's Coptic Christians and an advocate for tolerance and religious dialogue.

My sympathies to the Coptic community and in particular to the Coptic community of Australia.