Mr HUSIC (Chifley—Government Whip) (12:50): I rise in support of the motion that has been moved by the member for Hughes and welcome it as an important stepping stone within the process of, in our own way, providing a voice but also, more importantly, seeing potentially improvements in the quality of lives of Egyptian Copts. Like many Australians, I watched earlier this year the historic people's revolution unfold on television, which resulted in the departure of President Mubarak from a position that he had held for 30 years. The revolt was praised at the time by leaders worldwide, hoping that it would usher in a new era of peace and democracy for all Egyptians, I stress that—for all Egyptians.
In July I spoke in this chamber about the fears of local Coptic Christians in Chifley for friends and relatives at home in Egypt. I was actually approached, while holding a mobile office in Woodcroft, by a number of representatives of the local community who had met with me to discuss their concerns on behalf of family and friends and their fear of genuine persecution for Coptic Christians living in Egypt. The fears that were expressed to me all those months ago continue to exist today, as the transitional government works towards fresh elections and drafting a new constitution. The constitution itself and the parliament remains suspended.
Members will remember with horror the outrageous suicide bombing of an Egyptian church in January, as Orthodox Christians celebrated the new year with 21 innocent lives lost in this attack on the Church of the Two Saints. There could be nothing worse than people who are observing their faith having that observation shattered in such a violent way. I certainly condemn it, as many others do and rightly should worldwide.
Although Christians are a minority in Egypt, the Coptic Orthodox Church has existed there, where it was founded by St Mark in the first century. Since the 1952 coup in which the Republic of Egypt was formed Copts have faced increasing marginalisation and restrictions. Religious freedom is guaranteed by the now suspended constitution; however there still remain restrictions on building new churches and for people converting to Christianity.
I welcome the Egyptian government's statements condemning sectarian violence and their commitment to bringing those responsible to justice, a necessary pre-condition for Egypt to truly be able to say that it is celebrating democratic rights, religious freedom and freedom for all religions. I would hope that the transitional government and the government that follows commit to protecting religious freedom and affording all those in Egypt equal rights as enjoyed by the majority.
I am grateful that the member for Hughes has kept this important international situation in the spotlight here, and I am more than happy to support him and lend my efforts, albeit small, in supporting what I think is a very important move. I know the Australian government is closely watching to see how minority rights are respected in Egypt's political transition and is deeply concerned by recent escalation in sectarian tension. Certainly, from my own point of view, I have expressed within government, my concerns about the situation and, if there are situations where there is persecution, I have raised being able to provide some sort of humanitarian avenue to assist those people who have that genuine fear of persecution and fear for their lives.
Our government has long expressed its concerns for Egypt's Coptic Community, both publically and in diplomatic exchange. I am advised by the foreign minister that Australia's ambassador to Egypt has met with and written to his holiness, Pope Shenouda III, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, to convey the government's condolences for the 1 January attack and to discuss the situation effecting Christians in Egypt. I understand the member for Griffith, Mr Rudd, raised the situation of the Coptics with members of the Egyptian government when he visited Egypt in February this year and in December last year. I am also told that he met with Bishop Suriel of the Coptic Church in Melbourne in February and the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Mr Bowen, met with the bishop in early February as well in a sign of how important this issue remains for the government.
Australia's position on religious freedom in Egypt is consistent with our proud legacy of defending human rights at the multilateral level, particularly in the UN. Australia co-sponsored the UN general assembly's resolution on the elimination of religious discrimination in 2010, sponsored the mandate of the special rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief at the UN Human Rights Council and is involved in the UN Alliance of Civilisations, which promotes interfaith dialogue, an exceptionally important exercise in ensuring that people of all faiths work together for the common good and that avenues for religious persecution are minimised, with the ultimate aim of ensuring that it does not occur at all.
In February last year, the government also submitted a written intervention in Egypt's universal period review at the UNHCR, seeking advice on the status of the Egyptian National Council for Human Rights' proposal for a unified law on the construction and renovation of houses of worship. The government welcomed the interim Egyptian government's announcement in May that it would draft such a unified law and urge the swift adoption of final legislation which will significantly simplify regulations governing the construction and renovation of churches. I hope they take this opportunity to enshrine in legislation all the elements of political freedom which Christians in Egypt have long been denied or have been pressured to not be able to enjoy, and I look forward to seeing progress on this front.
Again, for the vibrant Coptic community that exists and for the schools and churches within Chifley, I state in this House my strong commitment and desire to speak up for them on this critical issue. They, like all others, should be able to celebrate and observe their faith free of persecution. Anything that I can do to help them in this cause and to represent this matter elsewhere I will do with every vigour I possibly can muster.