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Tuesday, 22 February 2011
Page: 1079

Mr BYRNE (9:25 PM) —I rise today to acknowledge the historic events that have recently taken place in Egypt, with President Mubarak stepping down following mass protest action for change. As US President Obama noted in his recent remarks on Egypt, ‘The people of Egypt have spoken, their voices have been heard and Egypt will never be the same.’

Most particularly tonight I would like to acknowledge the members of the Coptic Orthodox community in Australia, who have been and are living with fear about the fate and wellbeing of their loved ones in Egypt as a result of the recent Egyptian revolution. I understand that the Coptic community have expressed concerns about the transition of power in Egypt, fearful that the end of the Mubarak regime may trigger a surge in discrimination towards Coptic Christians in Egypt. The approximately 80,000-strong Australian Coptic community are deeply concerned about Egypt’s future; however, I know they remain hopeful that Egypt can achieve a better future where all of Egypt’s people’s voices are heard and where minority groups are not discriminated against.

It is true that the Coptic community are watching developments carefully. They are concerned about the interim military rule and are closely monitoring the Muslim Brotherhood, as many Copts have been discriminated against by the government and extremist elements of the Islamic community in the past. On that note, I wish to express my condolences to all people in the Coptic community that have been victims of violence and terrorism in Egypt.

The extent of that was made clear on 1 January 2011, when Coptic Australians were in a state of grief and outrage after the heinous and evil Orthodox New Year suicide bomb attack on an Egyptian church. Twenty-two people died after a suicide bomber set off a massive explosion as hundreds of Coptic Christians celebrated a New Year’s Eve service in the Church of the Two Saints in Alexandria. Several congregation members who were killed in this murderous atrocity had relatives in Australia.

His Grace Bishop Suriel, the Bishop of the Coptic Church communities in Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and the ACT, has articulated on behalf of his community the reaction, the shocked horror of Copts in Australia and around the globe. In his words, ‘The whole Coptic community all around the world is just in total shock and dismay and never expected anything like this to happen in Egypt.’ In the light of this terrorist attack and the subsequent revolution in Egypt, I met with His Grace Bishop Suriel to obtain further information about his community’s concerns. He informed me that two of his parishioners had lost four family members in the terrorist attack in Alexandria and he reiterated the community concern about loved ones in Egypt. This is because of the uncertainty of the current power vacuum, which may be filled by organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

There is a belief that, should this group become ascendant in Egypt, with the effective establishment of an Islamic theocracy a new campaign of fear and violence against Christian Egyptians may sweep through the country. These are not unfounded fears by this ancient Christian community. For over a thousand years Coptic Christians have suffered persecution under different rulers in Egypt. As approximately 10 per cent of the population of about 80 million people, the situation of the Coptic Christians in Egypt is and to some extent always has been precarious; they are an ancient Christian minority of Egyptians in the epicentre of the Muslim world. We hope that during this difficult transition period extremist fundamentalists do not scapegoat Egyptian Christians or incite hatred against them.

I wish to note that Bishop Suriel had to cancel Coptic Christmas celebrations earlier this year in the light of the terrorist attacks, but I note the bishop’s efforts in releasing doves in Federation Square to represent the 22 Coptic Egyptians who died on New Year’s Eve. I also wish to praise the efforts of Bishop Suriel. He has untiringly kept the Coptic community in Australia informed of developments in Egypt. He has also promoted the value and role of interfaith dialogue in building a diverse and harmonious society in Egypt during this transition period. I also wish to commend His Grace on his efforts in advocating publicly the value of democratic rights and the right to freedom of religion and culture in Egypt during this historic transition period. Moreover, in the light of the crimes committed against the Coptic community in Egypt in recent months, I also wish to endorse the motion that was put in federal parliament on Monday by the federal member for Calwell, Ms Maria Vamvakinou, which basically includes the protection of the rights of all Egyptian citizens.

I also wish to note, briefly and in passing, that the Egyptian military did not fire on the demonstrators, the people they were sworn to protect. However, the overseer of this, General Tantawi, has a right and responsibility to ensure a transition that is credible, democratic and peaceful for all Egyptian people, Moslems and Copts, which means protecting the rights of all citizens.

It is an honour to acknowledge here the works of His Grace Bishop Suriel and the terrible atrocities that the Coptic Egyptians have experienced over time in Egypt. (Time expired)

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. Peter Slipper)—Before calling the member for Swan: I am sure that most, if not all, honourable members would associate themselves with the sentiments so ably expressed by the honourable member for Holt.