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Diversity Down Under

Ukrainian Catholics, Chaldeans and Copts add Eastern flavor to Australian multiculturalism

story and photographs by Sean Sprague

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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.

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Tags: Armenia Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church Armenian Apostolic Church Emigration Immigration