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Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Diversity Down Under

Leaving turmoil behind for a new life in Australia

Even many well-informed observers consider the Commonwealth of Australia a country of immigrants, though its indigenous peoples have had a presence on the continent for almost 50,000 years. And while there are parallels to the North American experience, Australia’s first European settlers were more colorful. Unlike the Puritans, Huguenots and Catholics who fled religious persecution and discrimination in Europe for refuge in North America, Europeans arrived in Australia en masse in the late 1700’s as convicts; Great Britain used Australia as a penal colony.

Once Europeans gained a foothold on the continent, the native population, estimated at about 350,000 at the time of settlement, began its precipitous decline, due mainly to infectious diseases. Open land, a gold rush and the building of railroads generated an immigration boom — not limited to Europeans — in the mid-19th century. But reactionary, anti-Asian discriminatory practices soon generated laws restricting the settlement of Australia to northern Europeans alone. This “White Australia Policy,” enacted nationally in 1901, controlled immigration for more than four decades, until reforms in the second half of the 20th century all but eliminated its effectiveness.

In 1975, the Australian government passed the Racial Discrimination Act, which ended these racially based immigration policies. Subsequently, the country has seen an influx of non-European immigrants. In addition, the indigenous population has rebounded.

Among these recent arrivals have been Eastern Christians — Armenians and Assyrians; Chaldean, Maronite, Melkite Greek and Ukrainian Greek Catholics; and Coptic, Greek, Macedonian, Russian, Serbian and Syriac Orthodox — whose small but vibrant communities are developing a multicultural Australia. To learn more, I visited three.

Over a lunch of New Zealand mussels, kangaroo steaks and a bottle of local cabernet sauvignon, Bishop Peter Stasiuk, who prepared the meal with relish, spoke about his small but growing community of Ukrainian Greek Catholics.

“Our liturgy attracts many outsiders, and several hundred have crossed over to join us, especially people wanting to become clergy.”

The Canadian-born bishop is responsible for 34,000 souls scattered throughout Australia and New Zealand. Most Ukrainian Greek Catholics, however, live in Melbourne and Sydney.

“There are 1.5 million Latin [Roman] Catholics in Melbourne, and many of our people attend their churches if they are closer to where they live.”

This back-and-forth is representative of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic experience in Australia, Bishop Peter said, an experience not unlike that of Ukrainian Greek Catholics in North America.

To a large degree, Australia’s Ukrainian Greek Catholics have assimilated, though they remain proud of their cultural heritage.

“I feel proud to be an Aussie, and I will be flying the flag on Australia Day,” said Melbourne resident Stephan Romanic. “But at the same time, I am proud of my Ukrainian heritage. Our church plays a big role in maintaining our identity and, for many of us, our whole lives are tied up with the church.”

Until the passing of the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act, the government forbade foreign language broadcasts and failed to support cultural and educational programs. Australia’s immigrant families, buttressed by their religious communities, remained the primary custodians of their country’s modest cultural mosaic. They still do.

“In the house, we speak a mixture of Ukrainian and English,” said Jenny Skorobagaty, whose grandparents fled Ukraine after World War II.

Many Ukrainian-Australians, especially Greek Catholics, found refuge in Australia from Josef Stalin’s purges, which targeted suspected anti-Communist nationalists.

Once settled, Australia’s Ukrainian Greek Catholics sought a priest from the homeland, but the matter proved difficult. In 1946, Stalin forced priests of the church to sever their communion with the Church of Rome and seek integration with the Russian Orthodox Church. By 1949, Australia’s first Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest, Father Pavlo Smal, finally arrived to celebrate the sacraments according to the Byzantine rites of the Ukrainian immigrants’ ancestors.

As well as passing on language, Ukrainian Greek Catholic parents pass on to their children cultural activities. Traditional Ukrainian dancing is especially popular.

“It’s in my blood,” said dance instructor Melanie Marovski. “My mother was the artistic director of a Ukrainian-Australian dance company for 30 years.” Now, Ms. Marovski is preparing to lead her troupe on a tour in Ukraine.

Despite the relatively small numbers of Ukrainian Greek Catholics in the country, Bishop Peter said he was confident the church had a future in Australia.

“Last year we baptized 45 kids,” he said, “the first time in 20 years we had more baptisms than funerals.”

The bishop’s optimism is reflected in the basement of the cathedral, which is dedicated to Sts. Peter and Paul. “We have six graves in the crypt of our cathedral ready for future bishops and space for another six. That’s how confident we feel about the survival of our church in Australia.”

I left the world of peroghi and stuffed cabbage in the back of a black Hyundai Sonata — bearing the customized license plate, “COPT 1” — for the Melbourne suburb of Preston. There, I joined Amba (or Bishop) Suriel, Coptic Orthodox Bishop of Melbourne, Canberra, Tasmania, South Australia, Western Australia and New Zealand, at St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church to commemorate the miracle of the Wedding at Cana. After the Divine Liturgy, celebrated in Arabic and Coptic, we traveled further to celebrate the engagement of an Australian Coptic couple.

“We mix with the Anglo-Australian population, and I have Australian friends, though in many ways our lives are quite different from theirs,” said Nariman Eskander, 28, who at age 13 left her native Egypt, home to more than 8 million Coptic Orthodox Christians. Australia”s Copts tend to hang on to their traditional customs and culture, eschewing the drinking and frolicking found in mainstream Australian culture, she said.

The bishop, who is in his late 40’s, noted that parenting has had much to do with the maintenance of such customs among even young Copts.

“My parents had a great influence on me, teaching me to fear God and warning of the traps faced by youth living in Western society,” he said. “My parents realized we must live within God’s commandments in an upright way.”

But even Copts question whether or not their families will remain intact. “Three-quarters of us will probably marry another Copt,” said Ms. Eskander, “though in the future I imagine there will be more intermarriage, and perhaps we will slowly lose our culture.”

Though Australia’s 1871 census noted a handful of Egyptians, it was not until after the political turmoil of the 1950’s and the passage of the Racial Discrimination Act that the country saw a significant influx of Egyptians, many of them Copts. According to the 2001 census, there are 18,000 Coptic Orthodox Australians. They are served by two eparchies — one based in Melbourne, headed by Amba Suriel, and another in Sydney, led by Amba Daniel.

“For the first wave of [Coptic] immigrants to Australia, which came in the 1960’s, it was difficult,” said Amba Suriel as we approached the eparchy headquarters, a former Carmelite monastery. “We had no churches or community infrastructure. But soon a Sunday school movement began, which spread religious education. Now we have seven churches and three schools.”

There are two Coptic Orthodox theological institutes in Australia, one in Melbourne and another in Sydney, both of which serve men and women. “There have been between 40 and 50 priestly ordinations in the past decade,” Amba Suriel said, adding that all of the priests are married.

Father Daniel Gabriel answered the call to the priesthood while furthering another career. He already had a Ph.D. in pharmacology, but his education and spiritual formation were rooted in the Coptic Orthodox Sunday school movement, which led him to dabble in theological study as a professional. He recognized eventually that the church was his true calling and began serious religious studies at the ancient Coptic monastery of Amba Bishoi in Egypt’s Wadi el Natrun.

“It was a big life change for me,” he said. But Father Daniel believes new priests like him will play a vital role in enriching the cultural life of the next generation of Coptic Orthodox Australians.

Nineteen-year-old Ereney Taklas, the daughter of a successful doctor, believes that parents who stress Coptic faith, tradition and culture from the beginning will help this process along.

“Instilling faith when we are young is important. I started very young … self-identity starts at birth, not adolescence.

“We feel integrated into Australia, but at the same time separate. There are some things commonly enjoyed in mainstream Australia that we just don’t go for.”

Australia’s Chaldean Catholic community is a recent addition to the country’s growing mosaic of cultures. Though several Chaldean families left Iraq for Australia in the 1960’s, the majority arrived after the 1991 Gulf War, said Faiz Dawood, choirmaster of the Church of St. Thomas the Apostle in the Sydney suburb of Ermington. And since the toppling of Saddam Hussein, and the ensuing insurgency and civil war, thousands more have found refuge in Australia.

Pope Benedict XVI last October erected the Eparchy of St. Thomas the Apostle of Sydney of the Chaldeans, sending the Archbishop of Basra, Mar Djibrail Kassab, as its first bishop. Today, some 29,000 Chaldeans call Australia home, with most families living in either Sydney or Melbourne.

Over a sumptuous Iraqi meal marking the feast of St. Stephen, two Australian Chaldean women — Tamala Ibrahim, 79, and Rakheel Odishou, 52 — spoke about their arduous path to Australia.

Mrs. Ibrahim left Iraq in 1999 with her son, Dhiia, then 34, who had suffered severe injuries in a car accident in Baghdad, leaving him permanently disabled. They rely on a small stipend from the Australian government. She recalled fondly life in Iraq, where her husband worked for an oil company and she taught English. Noting the current sectarian violence in Iraq, she insisted that there was a time when Sunni, Shiites and Christians coexisted in relative harmony.

“We all mixed and got on well and often couldn’t even tell what a person’s religion was,” she said. “In the school where I taught, the Muslims thought I was Muslim and the Christians thought I was Christian.”

Ms. Odishou, who lives with her 80-year-old mother, also relies on a government stipend. She has been in Australia for six years and has not given up hope of finding a husband in her new country. During the meal, Ms. Odishou showed me a photo of her citizenship ceremony and said she was proud to be Australian. But often, she said, her thoughts turned to Iraq, where she had left behind many family members.

For Ms. Odishou, as for much of the Chaldean Australian community, the church was a place not only to practice her faith, but also to retain her Iraqi identity.

This is no accident. Mr. Dawood explained that Australia’s Chaldean parishes sponsor a number of activities to attract Chaldean youth — Aramaic, Bible study, chant, dance, sport and social activities — all to foster and deepen their commitment to their Christian faith, their Chaldean traditions and their Iraqi identity.

All together, Australia’s Eastern Christians represent a tiny proportion of Australians: no more than 800,000 people in a nation of some 20 million. And yet, they have further enlivened a once relatively homogenous nation, drawing on the freedoms and opportunities in Australia while remaining faithful to their cultural and religious identities.

Navigating these different cultural draws is never easy, nor a static process. But it is smoothed by the increasing vitality of the Eastern churches in Australia.

Based in Wales, photojournalist Sean Sprague is a frequent contributor to ONE.

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