Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria’s first pastoral visit to Australia has sparked criticism in the Egyptian press that the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church was facilitating the asylum of 20 Egyptian Coptic families, while refugees arriving by boat are being detained in Australian immigration camps in Pacific island nations of Papua New Guinea and Nauru.
Father Tadros Samaan, Vicar General of the Coptic Orthodox diocese of Sydney, said the pope — who arrived in Sydney on August 30 for a 10-day visit — did not address the issue during his tour. He added that such reports were unfounded.
"Sixteen of those claims [of asylum seekers] had been accepted and four refused a month before the pope's arrival in Australia," he told The National. "The pope asserted the migration was a personal choice for Egyptians even with the rising tide of terrorism targeting Copts."
Australia has refused to resettle any asylum seekers who reach its shores by boat, and instead pays Papua New Guinea and Nauru to house them in camps whose conditions have been condemned by human rights activists.
The Coptic pope — who was ordained in 2012 after the death of long-time spiritual anchor Pope Shenouda III — has taken on an overtly more political role in recent years after the overthrow of former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013.
According to Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher on religious affairs at the Cairo-based Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the pope has not altered his support for Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El Sisi’s government or state institutions such as the police department.
“So, with families that were refused asylum in Australia, it was done on the basis of the church’s statements that Copts do not suffer discrimination [in Egypt] and any incident is an isolated one,” he said. “In reality, there are monthly reports of discrimination, and that is besides the killing of Copts and preventing them from praying in their houses of worship or renovating churches.
“The level of societal extremism has increased and the state can intervene through its institutions based on the rule of law, but paints itself as unable to solve sectarian problems.”
Copts, who make up about 12 per cent of Egypt’s population, have been targeted repeatedly by ISIL.
Egyptian Copts in Australia — most of whom migrated in the 1950s — have historically been outspoken on developments in their homeland, alarming the church’s leaders in Egypt, but their criticism has tempered in recent years.
In December last year at least 28 people were killed when a church adjoining the main cathedral was bombed. In May this year two simultaneous suicide bombings — at a church in the city of Tanta and at St Mark’s Cathedral, Alexandria - killed 44 people and wounded scores more.
Pope Tawadros was leading the Palm Sunday service at the cathedral at the time of the attack and was believed to be the target.
"The Pope is not loyal to the current authorities but represents the church's view," Mr Samaan told The National. "The Pope said that the conditions were deteriorating under Morsi, and hence supported a new leadership."
This year, nearly 100 Christians have been killed in sectarian violence, according to monitoring database Eshhad, whose website is currently blocked in Egypt.
“We have to take into account the larger picture that we have a special place in the constitution now and at least we have a law on the books," Mr Samaan said. "I realise it is not enforced on all occasions but at least we are not beholden to the whims of the ruler as before.
“With terrorism, it’s a global scourge, just look at Paris and even here in Australia. I believe Egypt is doing all it can to fight it.”
On Wednesday, Pope Tawadros, 64, met with Australia’s prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.
“I think these meetings and this visit strengthens the relationship between our two countries,” he said afterwards. “Any support from Australia or other countries to Egypt will be appreciated from all Egyptians.”
Soon after landing in Sydney, the pope was asked during a press conference about Australia’s upcoming vote on legalising same-sex marriage.
“This marriage is completely refused [in] the Christian faith,” he said. “This is not acceptable and it is considered a sin.”
Father Tadros said that some priests and members of the community advised Pope Tawadros not to answer questions about same-sex marriage.
“But he answered politely and honesty from the standpoint of our Christians teachings,” he said.