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Last Updated: Thursday, 4 March, 2004, 04:14 GMT
Church helps soothe Australia's Aborigines

By Phil Mercer
BBC correspondent in Sydney

The race riots in Australia's biggest city, Sydney, have focused attention on the role of the Church in helping to heal the country's fractured indigenous community.

Dozens of police officers were injured in last month's confrontation in the inner-city district of Redfern. The violence was sparked by the death of an Aboriginal teenager, which is the subject of three investigations.

It is estimated there are more than 80 religious groups, charities and government agencies working in Redfern.

The New South Wales police service also runs popular sports and community programmes for youngsters. These organisations face immense challenges, especially those posed by a rampant culture of drugs.

Redfern, already deprived, is at a low ebb following last month's riots

"The spiritual side of things in this community is very evil," Mick Mundine from the local Aboriginal housing company told the BBC. "It's just hell here at the moment."

Mr Mundine believes problems caused by poverty, alcohol and drugs have torn the heart out of his people.

"Some don't believe in the Christianity point of view - but some do. When you have church services here, you get all these people up there, listening, because they are searching for the right track," he said.

Christianity has been a major influence on indigenous culture since European colonisation more than 200 years ago. Missions were established across Australia by all denominations by the middle of the 19th century.

I think that in the last few weeks people of a Christian faith have had a very calming influence in Redfern
Linda Burney, Aboriginal MP

Many provided important education and health services to Aborigines. Some missions, however, attempted to dismantle native customs, by forbidding children from speaking their own language or taking part in traditional tribal ceremonies.

It cast generations of indigenous Australians adrift from their own culture.

Despite these problems, the first Aboriginal member of the New South Wales state parliament, Linda Burney, believes Christianity has had a positive part to play in Redfern.

"The role of religion has been disastrous from one perspective over the two centuries because it's been the missionaries who have tried to Christianise the blacks, but that wasn't all that successful," she told BBC News Online.

"But I think that in the last few weeks people of a Christian faith have had a very calming influence in Redfern," she said.

Today over two thirds of Aboriginal Australians identify themselves as Christians. For many, their faith works in tandem with ancient spirituality.

Father Joe Kelly, from a Catholic outreach programme in Redfern, insists the Church can be a powerful influence on indigenous people.

"They willingly accept doctrine and faith of Christianity but they accept it from the point of view of an Aboriginal culture," he explained.

An Aboriginal family on National Aboriginal Day in Sydney
Aborigines are the most disadvantaged group in Australia
"They find there're great similarities between their traditional beliefs and the Gospels and the whole of the Bible, the Old Testament especially," he said.

Brenda McDonnell, who helps run a Catholic sanctuary for Aboriginal women in Sydney, said indigenous Australians needed to do more to help themselves to end the depressing cycle of abuse and disadvantage.

"We black fellas have got to get off our backsides and work together to get our people out of this hopelessness and give them some pride," she said.

"I think it's about not having pride in being Aboriginal. We are still second-class citizens in Australia."

Aboriginal culture is at the spiritual heart of Australia. Until years of neglect and alienation are reversed, this country's treatment of its original inhabitants will remain its greatest shame.

The trials of the past 200 years are perhaps best summed up by an indigenous elder. Asked what his people's most notable achievement was, he answered simply: "survival".

Australia's lost generation
16 Feb 04  |  Asia-Pacific
Sydney mourns Aboriginal teen
19 Feb 04  |  Asia-Pacific
Sydney riots over Aborigine death
16 Feb 04  |  Asia-Pacific
In pictures: Sydney riots
16 Feb 04  |  Photo Gallery
Country profile: Australia
03 Jan 04  |  Country profiles
Timeline: Australia
04 Feb 04  |  Country profiles

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