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Wednesday, 30 May 2012
Page: 6433


Mr BYRNE (Holt) (17:46): I would like to ask the minister a question relating to offshore resettlement for people in certain countries. I do so having spoken with my good friend the member for Chifley about an issue that the member for Chifley and I have both spoken about, which is Coptic Christians—Coptic Christians in Australia and also Coptic Christians who are in Egypt at a very problematic time. I wish to raise this issue in light of the turmoil in the Middle East over the past 18 months, which we would all be aware of, and especially in light of the instability in Egypt that we are seeing on our TV screens.

In asking this question, Minister, I take you back to the events of 1 January 2011, when 22 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—a horrific atrocity. Several congregation members who were killed in this murderous atrocity had relatives in Australia. Moreover, since the start of the Egyptian revolution, violence in general and against Coptic Christians specifically has increased. Some of the more prominent examples are the church burnings in Sol and El-Marinab and the terrible violence at Maspero in Cairo on 9 October 2011 which resulted in 27 deaths and 300 injuries. This also affected our Coptic community in Australia greatly as well as those over there as the targeted victims of this terrorist attack. In particular, Salafist groups have organised violent demonstrations against Christians—for example, falsely claiming that Camelia Shehata, the wife of an Orthodox priest, had converted to Islam. The same group posted a film on the internet repeating the ridiculous claims of Dutch journalist Lex Runderkamp that Christians in the village of El-Marinab had set fire to their own church under construction.

As well as the ongoing instability, Coptic Christians have spent many months grieving the passing of his Holiness Pope Shenouda III. Pope Shenouda was an incredibly powerful voice for unity, tolerance and reconciliation. He was a much loved leader of Coptic Christians around the world and a great leader of his church who had a strong commitment to Egypt's national unity. His passing has made the transition to a new democratic Egypt all the more complicated. These are definitely difficult times for Coptic Christians in Egypt and also in Australia.

In recent discussions with Coptic Christians—who represent, as the minister knows, an 80,000 strong community—it was made clear to me that they are not pleased with this strong shift towards Islamism in Egypt. The Islamist parties have collectively won approximately 73 per cent of the vote in parliamentary elections this year. With Egypt in the midst of presidential elections at present, many Christians now fear the worst—an Islamist president who will enforce restrictive laws for Christians and liberals in the country.

I would also like to say, particularly given that they would be keen for me to be asking you this question, that I know you have been good enough to come down to my electorate to meet with Father Abanoub and His Grace Bishop Suriel. This is an issue that has been brought to our attention for some period of time. I am very proud to say that I have a very large and strong Coptic community in my electorate and when, in asking this question—which I am about to do with respect to giving us an update on what you are doing and how you are helping people like Coptic Christians who find themselves in danger and want to come to this country under the Humanitarian Program—I do so on behalf of my Coptic Christian constituents particularly at Saint Mina and Saint Marina Church, which you have been down to.

You can hypothesise about this. You watch it on your TV screens and you look at it and there is some distance. But when you meet with people whose families have been killed over in Egypt, when you see the desperation of these people looking at their TV screens, looking for hope and information about is happening in Egypt, you can understand the impetus behind their requests to find out whether or not they can come to this country through the Humanitarian Program. So, Minister, on the community's behalf, and I guess on behalf of my good friend the member for Chifley, Ed Husic, I would like to ask you: what you are doing through this Humanitarian Program to help minorities like the Coptic Christians who find themselves in danger and who want to come to this country?