As ten Coptic Christians who fled Islamic extremists in Egypt face imminent deportation from Australia, two Eastern Catholic bishops have urged the Australian government to keep in mind this country’s history of helping those in need.
Among the group of ten refugees who are all currently living in Melbourne is an elderly couple in their seventies and a mother with young children.
Melkite Eparch, Bishop Robert Rabbat, President of the Eastern Churches Council, said he is “concerned” because “the plight of any person in need, whether a migrant or someone looking for refuge, touches our heart.”
“Australia has always had a policy of opening its doors for the needy and people who are seeking refuge,” Bishop Rabbat said.
The ten face deportation this month as their applications for protection visas were rejected despite the ongoing violence in Egypt against Coptic Christians.
“We’re calling upon the government not to hide behind the law,” Bishop Rabbat said.
“The law is needed to care for the average Australian citizen but at the same time not to forget we are talking about human beings who are sometimes under duress. Who cross deserts and oceans and sometimes even die, just to seek a place of refuge. So it has to be a balance of the law and the heart.”
Joining Bishop Rabbat in expressing concern was Maronite Eparch, Bishop Antoine-Charbel Tarabay.
“I will join Bishop Rabbat especially in expressing the need to have a balance between the law and the human approach to the situation,” he told The Catholic Weekly.
As a Church we encourage our people to respect the law and at the same time to try to help others when we can, to help refugees in these situations.”
“I join him in praying for these ten people and their families. I’m worried about whether they might encounter any danger in going back to Egypt.”
Emad Youssef, a journalist from Cairo, is one of the ten refugees and fears for his life if he returns to Egypt.
“It’s still a dangerous situation,” he said, as Islamic extremist groups are “burning many churches and killing many Christians.”
“It is very dangerous at the moment for Christians in Egypt.”
Mr Youssef said he is a particular target because he has written articles criticising one of the extremist groups.
“They consider me an enemy because I was writing against them. They know me well.”
Spokesperson for the Australian Coptic Christian Movement Association, Peter Tadros, said the government’s decision to send the refugees back is “extremely disappointing”.
Mr Tadros pointed out that before the 2013 federal election, the government had promised to help protect genuine refugees like Coptic Christians.
“It doesn’t make any sense that the government is taking this hard stance when the Liberal Party in particular, prior to the 2013 election, made a promise that they would grant asylum to Coptic Christians. It doesn’t make any sense to us. It’s a blatant broken promise.”
“They repeated that promise at our rallies here in Sydney for the Australian Coptic Christian Movement. Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison were there in person saying that to the media and to hundreds of Coptic Christians.”
Mr Tadros said the situation for Coptic Christians in Egypt has worsened over the past 12 months.
“In the last 12 months we’ve seen the worst attacks against Coptic Christians in modern history. St Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo was attacked last year and on Palm Sunday St Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria was attacked while our Patriarch was there.”
He said ISIS had specifically named Coptic Christians in Egypt as one of their prime targets. “If we look at persecuted people around the world, Coptic Christians are up there in the top three.”
Mr Youssef said some of his fellow refugees facing deportation are feeling “depressed” about their situation.
“I think this Christian country should be able to help other people, especially fellow Christians,” he said.
“Miracles do happen and it is the Lenten season,” Bishop Rabbat commented. “After the crucifixion of Jesus Christ came his resurrection. So that’s what we’ll pray for. And you know, governments have sometimes surprised us and we hope they’ll surprise these people with good news.”