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Monday, 31 October 2011
Page: 12137

Mr ZAPPIA (Makin) (21:54): I take this opportunity to speak about the continuous stream of reports about the persecution of Coptic Christians in Egypt. This matter was the subject of a private member's motion introduced into the House by the member for Hughes on 19 September this year and, I believe, unanimously agreed to by the House on 13 October. At the time, I was unable to speak in the debate, but I take this opportunity to comment on the issue.

I understand that since around 600 AD the Muslim faith has gradually become dominant in Egypt and today Coptic Christians represent about 10 per cent of the population. Of course, even those figures may be questionable as it is claimed that some people will not declare their faith for fear of persecution. Some have even referred to the change as a form of ethnic cleansing and an act of apartheid. Whilst it was hoped that the overthrow of the Mubarak regime would bring an end to the violence, that clearly has not been the case. Whether Egyptian governments are simply unable to bring an end to the violence or are unwilling to do so is not clear. What is clear is that reports of violence, atrocities, discrimination and murder are becoming all too frequent.

On 1 January this year, a car bomb exploded in front of a Coptic orthodox church in Alexandria, killing 21 people and injuring dozens more. The explosion occurred a few minutes after midnight as the church's congregation were leaving a New Year's church service. In March, a church in Sole was set on fire by a group of Muslim males reportedly upset that a Muslim woman had become romantically involved with a Christian man. As a result, many Copts left the village in fear. Little more than one month later, in April, sectarian violence flared in a town 260 kilometres south of Cairo in response to the death of two Muslims. It was reported that an elderly Coptic lady was thrown off her second-floor balcony and many others were hospitalised. Shops, businesses and livestock known to be owned by Copts were targeted and pillaged. There were further violent clashes in May in Giza that left 15 dead, both Copts and Muslims, and many more injured. The local church was set on fire. Not long after, Copts in Maspero, a suburb of Cairo, were attacked during protests and one person died.

Religious intolerance is not acceptable in Australia and nor should it be when it occurs in other countries, particularly when it results in people being discriminated, persecuted and violated. Many people feel as strongly about their religion as they do about their nationality. I know that many Australians of Christian faith are extremely upset by the reports coming out of Egypt about the plight of Coptic Christians there, as is Australia's Coptic Christian community. If we believe that fairness, tolerance and equality are inherent values of Australian culture, then we should uphold those values not only here in Australia but in our participation and stance on international affairs.

For that reason, on 6 July this year I wrote to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Hon. Kevin Rudd, drawing his attention to concerns that had been raised with me about events relating to Coptic Christians in Egypt. The minister, to his credit and to that of the Australian government, had been closely monitoring the situation in Egypt and had been forthright in expressing the Australian government's concerns for Egypt's Coptic Christian community, both publicly and in diplomatic exchanges. Amongst the numerous actions taken by the government, Foreign Minister Rudd had raised the issue with the Egyptian government in his visits to Egypt in December 2010 and February 2011. Both Foreign Minister Rudd and Immigration Minister Chris Bowen had also met with Bishop Suriel of the Coptic Orthodox Church Diocese of Melbourne and Affiliated Regions, here in Australia, in February this year to discuss the issue. Importantly, the immigration minister has advised that individual assessments of visa applications made on humanitarian grounds by Coptic Christians will be made on a case-by-case basis.

However, it is of concern that reports of persecution of Coptic Christians continue to emerge from Egypt. On Friday, 4 November—that is, this Friday coming—a special prayer service will be held at the St Mary and Anba Bishoy Coptic Orthodox Church in the electorate of the member for Hindmarsh. I hope to join the member for Hindmarsh at that service.

I take this opportunity to commend the member for Hughes for the motion that was supported by this House on 13 October. I reiterate two parts of that motion which I certainly endorse. The motion stated:

That this House:

…   …   …

(2) condemns the recent attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt;

(3) expresses its sympathy for Coptic Christians who have been victims of recent attacks in Egypt …

I take this opportunity to endorse those remarks.