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Monday, 19 March 2012
Page: 2122

His Holiness Pope Shenouda III

Egypt: Coptic Christians

Senator STEPHENS (New South Wales) (14:49): Mr President, on your birthday, my question is to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator Bob Carr. Can the minister update the Senate on the government's response to the death of His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, the Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt?

Senator BOB CARR (New South WalesMinister for Foreign Affairs) (14:49): Australia joins the people of Egypt and the Coptic Church in mourning the death of his Holiness Pope Shenouda III. His Holiness served in religious life for 60 years and led the Coptic Church in Egypt for four decades. I was honoured to have met him twice as Premier and once as opposition leader. He has been described as the 117th patriarch of Alexandria in a continuous line of succession since the Apostle Mark founded Christianity in Egypt. He was a respected religious and spiritual leader, recognised—and this is important in today's world—for his commitment to religious tolerance and coexistence. This morning I spoke to His Excellency Mr Omar Metwally, Egypt's ambassador in Australia, to convey my condolences. I will speak with Bishop Suriel and Bishop Daniel, of Melbourne and Sydney respectively.

The death of Pope Shenouda comes at a difficult time for the Coptic community in Egypt. On 6 March, as foreign minister designate, I asked Australia's ambassador in Cairo, Dr Ralph King, to convey Australian concerns about growing sectarian violence in Egypt. The ambassador has met senior Coptic Church members and visited a number of Coptic churches to demonstrate Australia's strong support for religious freedom and the rule of law. One of these, the fourth century Church of Sts Sergius and Bacchus, is one of the oldest churches in Egypt. Ambassador King also visited the Hanging Church and the Cathedral of St Mark, the seat of His Holiness Pope Shenouda III.

Senator STEPHENS (New South Wales) (14:51): Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I thank the minister for his response. Can the minister advise if the government has taken any other action recently in relation to the growing sectarian violence in Egypt?

Senator BOB CARR (New South WalesMinister for Foreign Affairs) (14:51): The Australian government has repeatedly underlined to Egyptian authorities in Canberra and Cairo that religious differences must be respected and all efforts made to stem sectarian violence. Most recently, we made these representations during bilateral senior officials' talks in Cairo in February 2012.

The government have also taken multilat­eral action. We have a proud tradition of defending human rights and promoting reli­gious tolerance through the United Nations. In November last year Australia's ambass­ador in Geneva raised the situation of Coptic Christians with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Earlier this month Australia emphasised the inalienable right of freedom of religion or belief during dialogue with the UN special rapporteur.

Senator STEPHENS (New South Wales) (14:52): Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Can the minister advise the Senate on the Egyptian government's response to the situation of the Coptic Christian community?

Senator BOB CARR (New South WalesMinister for Foreign Affairs) (14:52): No-one is under any illusion about the scale of the challenges facing Egypt at this time. Recent violence, including the suppression of protests in Maspero in October 2011 and attacks in Amiriya in January, have resulted in a tragic loss of life and injuries to hundreds of Egyptians. It is critical that religious freedoms are protected and that Egypt's transition is just and inclusive. Australia stands firm in our support for the Egyptian people as they make the historic transition to democracy. Egypt in fact has a history of religious tolerance and inclusiveness. The Australian government welcomes commitments by the Egyptian government to maintain that proud and time honoured tradition. We look to the Egyptian government to act on these commitments and to ensure equal treatment and protection under the law for all Egyptians.