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Monday, 21 February 2011
Page: 780

Mr HUNT (1:16 PM) —Madam Deputy Speaker Vamvakinou, I congratulate you on this motion, firstly for supporting the Orthodox Coptic Christians of Egypt, who represent one of the great and abiding religious traditions in this world today, and secondly for drawing attention to the broader challenges in Egypt and across the Middle East more generally. I will proceed as I did earlier in addressing the Western Sahara issue: by looking at a framework for analysing this, firstly in terms of religious freedom, secondly in terms of the evolution of events in the Middle East and North Africa and thirdly in terms of the specific harm, damage and mistreatment of the Orthodox Coptic Christians of Egypt.

Let me begin with religious freedom. We stand resolutely and firmly as a political movement on my side and as a parliament on both sides for religious freedom, for religious tolerance and for freedom of worship, both in Australia and across the globe. That is who we are, that is where we stand and that is where we will stand. In that context, one of the great challenges we have seen in the Middle East—whether in the treatment of the southern Sudanese, who had a mixture of animist and Christian beliefs in a more broadly Islamic society, whether through the confessional process of Lebanon or whether through the divides between Israeli citizens and those who live in Gaza or Palestine and in the West Bank—the lack of religious tolerance has been an extraordinary issue. Right now, as we see, there is a great movement in the Middle East. As I noted earlier today, it is a movement whose end will not be certain. What I do know is this: firstly, the era of the strongman, authoritarian leader will progressively crumble. It will not be universal. It will not be immediate. Some states may fall. It may be that we see the fall of a Gaddafi in coming weeks. It may be that he lasts a lot longer. It may be that we see transition towards some form of constitutional democracy in Bahrain.

But what we will see is the progressive, albeit imperfect, transition of the Middle East away from the strongman leader. What is uncertain is whether this will then lead to an outbreak of religious extremism if certain parties or movements gain control in any of these countries or whether it will lead to the triumph of what you might call the Google generation. There is no doubt that whilst the Muslim Brotherhood was a factor on the streets in Egypt, the Google generation—the aspiration of young people, the aspiration of not just the educated groups but of many of those who have been denied access to education—was the paramount force.

The form which this future government will take is unknown. The form which other future governments in the Middle East will take is also unknown. That is where this motion plays such an important part. It is about the notion that we have to foster and support plural society in terms of acceptance of different ethnicity, acceptance of different race and acceptance, in particular, of different religious groupings within the Middle East.

We have a role, but let us not overstate our role and overreach, because we can do damage if we overreach. Our role, in my view, is to set the ground work—to be part of a broader international coalition which talks about religious freedom and accepting difference, accepting tolerance, accepting that there will be diversity within these states. The origins of many of these states date back to the decolonisation period post the First World War and, more generally, post the Second World War. In order to protect the Coptics in Egypt, we have to do all that we can to establish a climate, a culture, where there is an acceptance of diversity and difference and where there is, above all else, celebration of diversity and difference. The Egyptian Coptics have been treated badly, but they have hope under the new state and we must do all that we can through activities such as this to lend them and the new Middle East our support.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr S Georganas)—Order! The time allotted for this debate has expired. The debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.

Sitting suspended from 1.21 pm to 4.00 pm