The battle is on for the future of over 88 Coptic Christians living in Australia who have recently had their asylum visas denied.
After years of waiting, 22 Coptic families have been told, without explanation, that their visa application has been denied, and to return to Egypt. One of these families is Sydney-based Ashraf Boshre, who along with his wife Amany, their three daughters, Maria, 24, Mira, 19 and Monica, 13 along with his elderly parents, his sister and her daughter were told to “pack their bags” and leave the country by the end of June.
“When they told them they were going back, Ashraf’s father had a shock in his heart and was hospitalised for two days,” said Medhat Attia of the Australian Coptic Movement, a Sydney-run group providing support and advice to Coptic refugees.
The family cannot understand why they are being forced to return to Egypt in the current unstable and dangerous environment.
“The Australian Government has ‘country information’ about Egypt, but this information about Egypt is not accurate,” said Medhat.
Medhat pointed out the “double standard” of the Department of Immigration judging Egypt safe for Coptic Christians while at the same time the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade strongly warns Australians to “reconsider your need to travel” to Egypt on their Smart Traveller website.
Not that one really needs high profile Government information to assess that Egypt is not safe for Christians, with ISIS and other terror groups consistently and vocally marking Coptic Christians as a target.
Bishop Anba Suriel, leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Diocese of Melbourne and Affiliated Regions, returned to Australia on 5 June from a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
He said the situation in Egypt was “dire”: “I met with one family last Friday, and I almost broke down and cried,” he said. “I could spend the rest of the day telling you what I heard last Friday.”
While el-Sisi is supportive of the Christian community, the police and courts have been infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood, who have been “punishing” the Christian community for voting for el-Sisi in 2014.
“Egypt is the last Christian stronghold in the Middle East,” said Bishop Suriel. “Libya has already fallen. They want Egypt to fall, so that the Middle East will be gone. They want to annihilate Christians in the Middle East,” he said.
“It is as clear as day what is happening. The bombings are all targeted at Christians and we know there is more coming,” he said.
Bishop Suriel was in Cairo on December 11, 2016, the day that St Peter and St Paul church was bombed, killing 25 and injuring dozens more.
“Within two hours of the bombing I was inside of that church, and I cannot even begin to tell you what I saw in there. Blood splattered all over the ground on the walls, people’s flesh plastered on the walls, the roof completely blown out, windows shattered, the pews completely destroyed,” he said.
The Bishop keeps in his office at Donvale, Melbourne a shattered piece of one of the church pews, a silver bullet from inside the bomb and a broken cross, fashioned of concrete. On it are two drops of dried blood.
“The blood of the martyrs,” he said.
When asked how the Australian Immigration Office could be under the impression that it was safe for Christians to be deported back to Egypt, he said:
“I have no explanation.”
The Catholic Weekly contacted Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, for comment but he did not respond. However, in two interviews both given on 1 June – a doorstep interview on the steps of Parliament and with Alan Jones’ Breakfast Show on Radio 2GB – Dutton referred to cases where “people are claiming to have converted to Christianity,” appearing to insinuate that this included the 22 families.
Bishop Suriel said that Dutton pointing to “fake Copts” and “fraudulent cases” was intended to take the heat off himself.
“I am not talking about fraudulent cases. I am talking about 22 cases that I am dealing with, that I know are all Coptic Christians,” he said.
“The faith of these 22 families is unwavering, just as the faith of the 29 Copts murdered on a bus in Egypt last month was unwavering. In the face of death, these martyrs refused to convert to Islam and said: ‘We were born Christian, live as Christians and will die as Christians’.”
Mr Dutton has since refused to give an explanation. He has also refused to meet with Bishop Suriel, passing on the case to his assistant, Alex Hawke.
“This is unacceptable,” said Bishop Suriel.
Medhat was similarly saddened at the Minister’s comments, saying: “I don’t know where he is getting his information from.”
Speaking of the Boshre family, Medhat explains how they are “quite active” in the Sydney Coptic community.
“Ashraf drives the courtesy bus for the church. He and his wife teach in Sunday School and they go and feed the homeless. Plus, his oldest daughter does nursing home visitation,” he said.
Since hearing the news of the deportation the Boshre family feels “like they have been stabbed.” They cannot relax, and the youngest daughter, aged 13, has started suffering from anxiety, he said.
The community cannot understand why this is happening.
“Since the establishment of the Coptic Church in Australia almost 50 years ago, this is the first time the Minister for Immigration has chosen not to intervene in protection visa matters that we as a Church directly support,” Bishop Suriel said.
“We have lost ancient churches, dear friends and beloved family members and yet the Australian government threatens to send 22 families back to face this persecution alone.”
Public resistance to the decision has quickly gained momentum.
Within a few days, Medhat put together a Change.org petition.
“I said to Ashraf, ‘We have to go to the public, because the Immigration Department is not doing the right things to you’,” said Medhat.
“Within 24 hours, we had over 1,000 signatures,” he said.
The petition has passed its target of 5,000 to hit more than 7500 signatures but they are now hoping to reach 10,000.
An article written by Bishop Suriel was also picked up by the Australian media.
Possibly in response to these pressures, a press release was issued by Assistant Immigration Minister, Alex Hawke, on Wednesday May 31. Despite assurances to “support Coptic Christians,” the decision regarding the 22 families is still unknown.
“I really don’t know what it means,” said Bishop Suriel, speaking of the release.
“Does it mean something or is it just to calm things down until the media takes the heat away and then the situation will die again?”
“Peter Dutton said ‘they are not going to put Copts in harm’s way’. Well, we’ll wait and see,” he said.
The Australian Christian Lobby has entered the fray alongside the Coptic Community with ACL managing director, Lyle Shelton calling on Mr Dutton “to allow families in Australia to stay while it is unsafe for Christians in Egypt.”
“If other heads of Churches were to write a strong letter to the Minister of Immigration then that would be most helpful as well,” said Bishop Suriel.
Meanwhile Ashraf has a direct message to the Minister:
“Please look to this cases with merciful eyes, and the time factor is very important. How long does it take for a department to look into a case? How long does it take for them to study it?”
You can sign the petition at Change.org