May 11, 2017

Adjournment – St Mary and St Mina Coptic Orthodox Church

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (12:26): I rise to call for the Inner West Council, unelected as it is, to withdraw its proposed demolition of the St Mary and St Mina Coptic Orthodox Church in Sydenham in my electorate. This is the oldest Coptic Orthodox church in the Southern Hemisphere, and was the first Coptic Orthodox church established anywhere outside of Egypt.

This church was built in 1884. It was, for many, many years, a Methodist church on Railway Road in Sydenham. It was there before the airport, which, of course, had a significant impact on the practice of faith in the church, because it was directly under the newly built third runway. The church was bought by Egyptian Coptic migrants in 1968. Those migrants, of course, fled after political turmoil and persecution of Coptic Christians in Egypt. They put their hard-earned dollars into that church to buy it. The church holds war memorials from before that time dedicated to our brave diggers who fought for freedom in this country. The buildings around the church were demolished when the third runway was built, and a new church funded by the federal government was established in the St George area across the river. But the community had wanted the church to be maintained as a museum to the local history of, particularly, the Coptic Orthodox community, who number around about 100,000 in Sydney alone.

Recently, on 2 May, an arsonist targeted the building, causing more damage, which is the subject of a New South Wales police investigation. It is true that the building needs an upgrade, but the Coptic community have themselves raised funds and organised builders who are prepared to participate in the refurbishment of the church. The Inner West Council, of course, does not actually exist as a democratic body. The New South Wales government abolished the former Marrickville Council, and had a forced amalgamation between the Marrickville, Leichhardt and Ashfield councils into the Inner West Council, and they have had an unelected administrator since that occurred. Given that, there is no democratic process for the community to participate in stopping the abolition of this church.

The council says it will take $5 million to rebuild the church, but the Coptic Orthodox community have raised in cash and kind some $2 million to carry out the work. The Inner West Council plans tomorrow to raze the building and create a memorial area using parts of the church. The state government’s Office of Environment and Heritage has not opposed the demolition. I say to the New South Wales government of Gladys Berejiklian, if this is not heritage—a church built in 1884, the first Coptic Orthodox church outside of Egypt—then what is? The New South Wales government particularly have a responsibility because there is no elected council in place. Effectively, the administrator is a representative of the New South Wales coalition government, appointed by them as a sole administrator, and they should intervene. At a time when the Islamic State is claiming responsibility for bombings of Coptic churches in Egypt as recently as Palm Sunday, when 50 people were killed, this is a community that feels they are under siege, and I stand with the community in support of their heritage, in support of their right not only to practise their religion at the church in Bexley but also to recognise their history as an important community here in Australia.