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Christians take action with indigenous protesters

NEWS | Anne Lim & Kaley Payne

Friday 1 May 2015

Christians stood in solidarity with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders today, as part of a National Day of Action to protest against the proposed closure of up to 150 remote communities in Western Australia.

Common Grace, a Christian group that describes itself as being “passionate about Jesus and justice”, promoted the National Day of Action as an opportunity for Christians to stand with their Aboriginal brothers and sisters. Thousands attended an estimated 85 rallies throughout the day across Australia and overseas, braving wet weather in many locations such as Sydney, Wollongong and Armidale in NSW. As well as all capital cities, there were rallies from coast to coast – Geraldton, Port Hedland, Cairns, Rockhampton, Albury-Wodonga, Alice Springs, Dubbo, Orange, Geelong, Moree and Ceduna. A rally in Brisbane had to be postponed until Saturday because of severe thunderstorms and cyclonic conditions

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The National Day of Action was spearheaded by Aboriginal women of the Kimberley and leaders of the #SOSBlakAustralia campaign, in response to statements by West Australian Premier Colin Barnett and Prime Minister Tony Abbott about cutting off power and water to up to 150 Aboriginal homeland communities deemed unsustainable because of isolation and small population size.

Chris McLeod, South Australia’s new Assistant Bishop, and a Gurindji man, attended a rally in Adelaide this morning with what he estimates was a crowd of several thousand.

“There’s a lot of people who are very concerned about the closure of Aboriginal communities. They’re showing great solidarity with those communities, and feeling like those communities aren’t really being listened to. We want to stand alongside people whose voices aren’t being heard. That’s certainly part of my motivation in being there today.”

McLeod said that whatever the decision of the West Australian government, it should be “working with Aboriginal people, not for them.”

“The main thing is that these communities can participate in their own decision making – that their opinions, their views and their concerns are taken into consideration.”

Tony Riches, the pastor of Melbourne Indigenous Church, was on his way to the Melbourne rally this afternoon when Eternity spoke to him. His wife, Francine, is of the Arriyol clan of the Bardi tribe in the Kimberley in Western Australia, and the couple lived and worked in the region for many years, with Mr Riches as pastor and administrator of the One Arm Point community in Gumbarnun. But he says it’s not just for family reasons they’re fighting the closure of the West Australian indigenous communities but because it has the potential to “affect every Aboriginal community and group.”

“A lot of work has gone into building these communities up,” he said. “But the closures haven’t been thought through, they haven’t been discussed.”

Mr Riches referenced the closure in 2011 of Oombulgurri, north of Kununurra, after a coronial inquiry in 2008 found high levels of domestic violence, sexual abuse and alcoholism. “There was crime happening there, but they punished the innocent with the guilty. People shouldn’t be left homeless, and it’s already happened.”

He said it was very important that Christians get involved and speak out about the closures. “It’s not just a financial issue for the WA state government. It’s a social justice issue, it’s a human rights issue. It’s WA saying they can’t afford to continue to supply power and water to the people they took the land from to build [that infrastructure]. I think every church should have a presence.”

Brooke Prentis, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander campaigner for Common Grace, said the fact that rallies were held from coast to coast, showed how frustrated people were that history seemed to be repeating itself.

“It goes to the heart of our country,” she said. “It goes back to the original colonisation and the history of communities like Old Mapoon in Cape York, where people were moved off their land at gunpoint 1960s, and then moved back in 1980s and it was a good news story.

“From a personal perspective I can’t believe it’s something we’re talking about doing again. If the government proceeds with this, in 20 years’ time they will be saying sorry again.”

Ms Prentis said the proposal to turn off water and power to these communities amounted to forced closure, which was in contravention of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People Article 10, which says “Indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories. No relocation shall take place without the free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous peoples concerned and after agreement on just and fair compensation and, where possible, with the option of returning”.

“A lot of people are talking about this and saying it reflects badly on our country’s standing in the international community,” she said.

She believes it is important for Christians to be involved in the protests, especially as the Christian church had been involved in the history of removal of Aboriginal people from remote homelands.

“It’s important that we change our own history and Jesus is marching alongside every Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal person marching today. As Christians I believe we’re called to follow Jesus’ example.”

The Uniting Church in Australia, Western Australia and the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress WA expressed deep concern about the planned closure of remote Aboriginal communities in WA. In a statement, they said they were troubled by the ramifications for individuals and communities and the lack of understanding of Aboriginal culture and the rights of indigenous people.

“We call on the federal and state government to reconsider their approach to remote settlements, and engage upon a consultation with remote communities about the best way to deliver services to them,” the Moderator of the Uniting Church in WA, Rev Steve Francis, said.

“We need to act sensitively with Indigenous people who have suffered so much dispossession and trauma during the history of European settlement of Western Australia. Making decisions to remove services to remote Indigenous settlements could increase the sense of Indigenous dispossession and displacement.”

Rev Sealin Garlett, chair of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress WA, said, “Indigenous people have a deep connection to our land. This is not just a ‘lifestyle choice’ but part of our cultural and spiritual identity. We need to be on country to look after it.”

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