UPDATED: Christians unite to advocate for Manus Island refugees

UPDATED 8 November 2017 at 2:18pm

A pastor and a provisional psychologist are currently suspended four storeys above the Subiaco office of Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, on a hanging tent. The two Christians, part of the #LoveMakesAWay movement, have unfurled two banners reading “SOS Manus” and “Love Makes A Way for asylum seekers” and are doing a sit-in on a rock climbing portaledge above the office.

The peaceful aerial sit-in is calling on the Australian Government to take immediate action to evacuate Manus before more people die.

Pastor Jarrod McKenna of Cornerstone Church, part of the #LoveMakesAWay action, said: “The lives of 600 people on Manus Island hang in the balance, their fate is in Julie Bishop’s hands. That’s why we are hanging here, urgently calling on the Foreign Minister and the government to take immediate action to ensure no more people die on Manus.

“What’s happening on Manus Island is an emergency. 600 people who sought safety in Australia have been imprisoned for years and are now deprived of food, water, medical care and a safe future.

“The crisis on Manus Island is desperate and urgent. We are appealing to the over 300 Christians who have been involved in #LoveMakesAWay to date to take immediate action. We are also appealing to all Australians of good conscience to take immediate action in support of the 600 people held on Manus. We must not let the Manus Island death toll rise,” said Delroy Bergsma, a provincial psychologist and the other half of this #LoveMakesAWay action.

3 November 4:36pm

More than 600 men are sitting barricaded in the dark at the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre, surviving on dwindling supplies of food and water. It is three days since the Australian government abandoned the centre and left them sweltering in temperatures of 31C without electricity, sanitation, medical supplies or security.

Many of these men are suffering from physical and mental conditions that require medical treatment, but they prefer to put up with miserable conditions than to move to other sites on Manus Island or elsewhere in Papua New Guinea that are not finished and which they believe are not safe from attacks by hostile PNG locals.

As the asylum-seekers weigh up the risk of physical harm from leaving the centre against the risk of starving or failing health, Christians of many church backgrounds are voicing their outrage at the government’s handling of the humanitarian crisis.

“There are people who are speaking out at a grassroots level from all different church backgrounds.” – Matt Anslow

Scores of people responded today to a call by Christian advocacy group Love Makes a Way to contact Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek.

Commenting on the group’s Facebook page, Vivian Harris said she was a “first time phone activist and hates talking on phones but [it] is surprisingly easy once you start.”

Unlike the many social and political issues that divide Christians, the Manus Island disaster seems to have united Christians across the denominational spectrum.

“I think it’s right to say that there are people who are speaking out at a grassroots level from all different church backgrounds because what’s happening on Manus is outrageous,” said Matt Anslow, one of the founders of Love Makes a Way, which advocates for asylum-seekers.

“Please, please, please, even if you’re not a protesty type person, call your local member.” – Michael Frost

“Australia is literally responsible for people who they are letting starve, they’re letting them go without water. I mean, that’s a complete breach of not just a legal responsibility and not just human rights, but just the basic moral competence of a human being.”

Anlow said he believed the vast majority of Australian Christians were willing to speak up for a group that is largely of Muslim background.

“The fact that Christians are so willing to speak en masse for people who don’t share their faith simply because they are being mistreated – injustices are being done against these people who are vulnerable – I think that’s a credit to Christians in Australia at the moment,” he said.

“My belief is that Christians ought not to give their loyalty to either the left or the right – our loyalty is with Jesus and Jesus says that he is with people who suffer and that when we feed those who are hungry and give drink to those who are thirsty, it is as if we are doing it to him.”

On his Facebook page, leading missiologist Michael Frost also urged all Christians to “please, please, please, even if you’re not a protesty type person, call your local member, call the PM’s office, call, complain, beg them to help these poor desperate people.”

“The humanitarian crisis unfolding on Manus Island is one of our government’s making and only they have the power to correct it. New Zealand has been offering to take these men since 2013, but our government refuses to allow any of them to go there for fear of encouraging more refugees arriving. It’s cruel and inhumane,” he told Eternity.

“The federal government is just treating these people as political pawns; it shows they are fixated on making their lives miserable” – Sally Parnell

Kon Karapanagiotidis, CEO and Founder Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, estimated that thousands of Australians had called and emailed their federal members of Parliament and the Prime Minister. He urged Christians to continue to call and keep the pressure up to evacuate the men to Australia.

“We are working with local agencies on the ground, investigating ways to get food and water to the men immediately,” he said.

Jesuit Social Services also urged the government to spare the men “further emotional and physical harm and resettle in Australia or suitable third countries.

“More than 600 men are directly impacted by the closure of the Manus Island detention centre today, and are now unreasonably expected to relocate to another situation of danger,” said Jesuit Social Services Acting CEO Sally Parnell.

“The federal government has subjected these vulnerable people – many of whom have escaped trauma and persecution in their home countries – to needless punishment at the expense of finding a durable solution, despite the men being in Australia’s care.

“By cutting off access to food, drinking water, medical treatment, education programs and electricity from today, the federal government is just treating these people as political pawns; it shows they are fixated on making their lives miserable”.

Jesuit Social Services and the Catholic Alliance for People Seeking Asylum (CAPSA), of which the organisation takes a lead role, urged the government to treat all people in Australia’s care in offshore detention facilities humanely.

“We join millions of Australians in saying that these people’s lives have been kept on hold for long enough,” Parnell said.

“These men must be given the opportunity to resettle in Australia or a suitable alternate country.”

“Australia cannot walk away from its responsibility.” – Stuart McMillan

Also calling on the government to resettle the refugees promptly were Father Frank Brennan, CEO of Catholic Social Services, John Menadue, former secretary of the Department of Immigration, Robert Manne, emeritus professor of politics at La Trobe University and Tim Costello, chief advocate of World Vision Australia.

“It’s our responsibility … After four years, all options other than Australia have come to nothing or have been rejected by our government. There is now no option but to resettle them in Australia,” they wrote in a joint press release.

Uniting Church in Australia President Stuart McMillan noted there was no long-term solution for the refugees on Manus Island who are not included in the relocation arrangement with the US.

“Australia cannot walk away from its responsibility to guarantee the safety of these men who have already suffered so much uncertainty and fear,” said McMillan.

“It is clear the refugees inside the Manus Island processing centre hold grave fears for their safety and security in the other locations. The government must take immediate steps to ensure the refugees remain safe and continue to have access to water, food and critical medical and mental health services.”