PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA: Coptic Christianity in Egypt is one of the most remarkable religious and cultural traditions of the world.
This ethno-religious group reaches back 2,000 years to the time of the apostles. The Christian Copts once formed the majority of Egypt’s population. Today they are a vulnerable minority in a predominantly Muslim country.
Last New Year’s Eve a barbaric terrorist bombing killed 24 people and injured close to 100 who were leaving a church service in Alexandria. News from Egypt has, however, been dominated by the popular uprising earlier this year. The revolution provides hope of a transition to a healthy democracy.
One would have hoped that the revolution would also lead to improved security for Christians. Unfortunately, though, this does not seem to have happened. Members of the Coptic community in my electorate have informed me about continued attacks and murders that have taken place continuously this year.
After the revolution, ‘the intensity and frequency of crimes has dramatically escalated and reached an alarming and unacceptable level of daily events,’ according to Australian Coptic leaders. Information from news agencies verifies this assessment. The violence against and intimidation of Christians Copts takes many forms.
The perpetrators may be organised groups, sometimes with links to international Islamic terrorism. The Alexandria massacre was reportedly the deed of a Gaza based terrorist organisation. In other cases, mobs seem to have committed spontaneous violent acts when smaller disputes have escalated.
There are, however, some disturbing common features in many of the incidents. At the centre of many incidents are tales of women who allegedly have converted to Islam but are held captive by Christians. This is obviously an irrational myth, impossible for the victims to defend themselves against.
Another common type of violence is attacks on churches. Extremists try to force the
closure of churches, prevent churches from being built or destroy and desecrate churches.
The attitude of authorities, unfortunately, is often to interpret incidents as criminal acts that are not religiously or politically motivated. Police and military often fail to intervene to protect Copts. Local authorities also have a record of discrimination against Copts in their administration.
Large bombings like the one in Alexandria attract international attention, but we do not hear about the thousands of incidents, insults and crimes against individuals that make Christians increasingly reluctant to use public transport or leave their homes unless absolutely necessary.
It is difficult to acquire an exact understanding of the sectarian violence in Egypt. This,
however, is not necessary in order to formulate the demands that must be made of the Egyptian leadership.
It would be possible for the leaders of Egypt to quickly improve the human rights situation for Coptic Christians. The real source of power, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, has full control of Egypt. It is within the power of the supreme council to make protection of the Coptic minority a main element of the plan for transition to democratic rule.
It is important that the Australian government not only condemns the violence against Coptic Christians but also uses all available avenues to press the leaders of Egypt to immediately send a message to all levels of government that the human rights of all citizens must be respected. If this is not successful the government should consider introducing temporary safe haven visas similar to the temporary visas given to the
Kosovar Albanians in 1999.
The coalition has already committed to granting Coptic Christians access to our humanitarian program, restoring the arrangement under the Howard government that saw over 100 Copts given access to Australia each year.
Finally, I want to point out that the worsening situation for Copts in Egypt is one part of a prolonged and agonising drama of Christian exodus from Middle Eastern countries. There is insufficient debate of this tragedy in the West. The Muslims who choose to migrate to Western countries enjoy freedoms, acceptance and protection, which should be provided to Christians in the Muslim world.
The ancient Christian communities in the Middle East are finding it increasingly hard to survive in their home countries. Copts are significantly overrepresented amongst migrants from Egypt. These people are welcome to Australian, as are all people who want to share in our values and seize the opportunities that Australia offers. But we have an obligation to do what we can to ensure that their brothers who remain in Egypt can live their lives in freedom and with dignity.