Coptic church under siege

Fighting the good fight to protect St. Marys

old brown brick church with palm try St. Mary's is the first Coptic church outside of Egypt

St. Mary’s Coptic Church in Sydenham has a long and storied history. Originally built in 1884, the site was acquired by Egyptian immigrants in 1968, making it the first Coptic Orthodox Church outside of Egypt.

However, the Church is now under severe threat. Citing ‘safety concerns’ and the high cost of refurbishment, the local council plans to demolish the building. Since last year’s local council mergers, the unelected Inner West Council lead by administrator Richard Pearson have showcased little intent to preserve the Church, despite multiple requests from the local community and non-government organisations.

For over 10 years now, Coptic Orthodox Christians have been fighting to protect their church from demolition. The community has raised $2 million for a proposed a refurbishment of the site, which would see a community centre, a chapel for visitors and an Egyptian Pharaonic and Coptic museum. Despite this offer, the council declined under the grounds that the development would cost $5 million and thus exceed the amount donated. More recently, a successful court injunction halted the demolition scheduled to proceed on 8th May.

Despite the National Trust’s description of the church as being “rare and nationally significant” the council has demonstrated a profoundly stubborn inability to see any value in this historical building. By claiming that refurbishment costs are too high, the council has refused to take advice from two prominent building companies who said that the redevelopment would only amount to $2 million. In an effort to ameliorate the community, Council has instead offered to create a memorial using the Church’s bricks as pavement. Given the incredible significance of the Church to Sydney’s Coptic community, this solution is both unacceptable and disrespectful.

On 2nd May, a suspicious fire ravaged parts of the Church. While it remains under investigation, many locals recall similar blazes before the council demolished two local heritage listed headmaster stations.

In response to the fire, Pearson claimed the building was now too dangerous and should be demolished immediately. A request for an independent building inspection by the Egyptian community from the local and NSW government has been rejected. This unfortunate state of affairs is deeply troubling. It is a travesty that such a historical building is to be demolished for seemingly petty reasons.

The Coptic community’s loss is a developer’s dream. Changes to the regular flight path from Kingsford Smith Airport will see planes fly away from the church, subsequently increasing the value of the large piece of land. In response, Australian Coptic Heritage and Community Services (ACHCS) has commenced legal action against the council.

This controversy comes after the bombing of two churches that killed 50 people on Palm Sunday in Egypt, where Coptic Christians have been victim to longstanding terror. The repression faced by Christians across the Middle East makes the government’s reluctance to protect their culture and heritage in Australia all the more tragic. But the 100 000 strong Coptic community is ready to fight.  It is imperative that all political, cultural and religious leaders take a stand and do the right thing.