Australian Catholic leaders claim that new laws intended to combat espionage could force Australian Catholics to register as foreign agents in their own country.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull introduced the anti-espionage measures in December in the wake of scandals involving Chinese agents meddling in Australian politics, according to The Telegraph. Catholic leaders warn, however, that the measures also target Catholics, as the language of the laws would label them as agents of a foreign state.
“Catholics are followers of Jesus Christ, we are not agents of a foreign government,” Bishop Robert McGuckin told parliament, according to The Telegraph. “The Catholic Church in Australia is made up of millions of Australian citizens who practice their faith, and they are not beholden to a foreign power.”
“It seems that every Catholic involved in advocacy may need to register and report. Given Catholics make up more than the 20 per cent of the population of Australia … we think that’s a lot of registrations,” McGuckin added.
The proposed laws would mandate that any agent working for the interests of a foreign power must reveal themselves and register with the Australian government, or face prosecution. Turnbull introduced the measures in part as a reaction to an Australian MP who was forced to resign for giving a pro-China speech in parliament after receiving a donation from a wealthy Chinese businessman. Australian Catholics say, however, that the measures are flawed in their approach to members of the church and that more safeguards are needed to protect Australian faithful.
“The exemption for religion proposed in clause 27 is drafted based on the incorrect belief that the Catholic Church in Australia acts on behalf of a foreign government, i.e. Vatican City State,” the Australian Bishops’ Conference said, according to Crux Now. “Given the Catholic Church in Australia does not act on behalf of a foreign government, the clause would confer no exemption on members of the Catholic Church in Australia.”
Andrew Hastie, a Liberal MP, said that he did not believe more safeguards were needed in the measures to protect Catholics and other religious Australians. Hastie argued that as long as Catholics promote Australia’s interests and have nothing to hide, they have nothing to worry about.
“We could introduce more safeguards if needed, I’m not convinced there is a need,” Hastie said, according to The Telegraph. “I think if you’re seeking to build Australia and not undermine it as an Australian citizen then you shouldn’t be concerned.”
McGuckin warned, however, that the bill would not only threaten Australia’s Catholics, but would also pose a threat to any other religious institution with international ties.