Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg has agreed to meet with faith leaders opposing the Carmichael coal mine after a six-hour sit-in protest of prayer and worship was staged on Tuesday at his office building in east Melbourne.
“It’s a significant win,” Fairfield Uniting Church minister Rev Alex Sangster, said. Ms Sangster was one of the core group of eight who took up position in the adjoining lobby space after they were barred from entering Mr Frydenberg’s office in Camberwell.
The group, which also staged hourly funerals for coal in the various faith traditions represented, vacated the premises at 4pm after the offer to meet Mr Frydenberg was relayed and accepted.
The protesters and supporters from the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change (ARRCC) network included Baptist ministers, Catholic nuns and a priest, a Buddhist priest and Jewish rabbi Jonathan Keren-Black, who acted as a media spokesperson.
Ms Sangster said the group decided to stage the protest after Mr Frydenberg had not responded to a letter, which was signed by Uniting Church President Stuart McMillan and 10 other faith tradition representatives, demanding the government halt the Carmichael coal mine.
“Given the climate emergency that the world now faces, it is morally irresponsible for Australia to allow the building of any new coal mines, coal-fired power stations or other fossil fuel infrastructure,” the letter stated.
Ms Sangster said the giant Carmichael coal mine in Queensland’s Galilee Basin, which is being funded by the Indian Adani Group with federal and state government assistance, cannot be justified as the world needed to turn to renewable energy.
“Josh Frydenberg has the power to stop the mine and he’s refusing to do so,” Ms Sangster said.
“So the decision was made that a small group of religious leaders would come and engage in an act of non-violent peaceful protest.”
Ms Sangster said police were called to the scene of the protest early and had maintained a presence throughout the day but interaction with them had been cordial.
“We are coming from traditions of non-violence so there’s no concern from the police,” she said during the protest.
“The way we’re going to conduct ourselves is completely respectful.
“It’s about seeking justice, not about causing trouble, so they’re happy with us to continue what we are doing as long as we keep the entrances clear.”
Ms Sangster said the decision to stage the protest was not made lightly and was reached after other means such as meetings, petitions and letter writing had failed to elicit a satisfactory response.
“There is a space for direct action,” she said.
“And when all those other methods haven’t worked sometimes it can be time to take an actual stance with your body.
“As Christians we believe in a God of the incarnation, which is spirit in flesh. So I believe I am called to use my body to be part of that work, not just my letter writing skills or my preaching.”
She also invoked the history of the Uniting Church and, more broadly, the memory of Christian inspired civil rights campaigners such as Martin Luther King or the Freedom Riders in the US.
“Jesus was the archetype of non-violent peaceful resistance and all the great movements of change and social justice have been inspired by his work,” she said.
She quoted the words of St Francis: “Preach the Gospel every day and if you must, use words.”
“I feel like there is no clearer way to preach the Gospel than to be standing here with Jesus and my companions from other faith traditions and standing up for our planet.”
Ms Sangster said her church council and members were backing her.
“Fairfield members have been incredibly supportive,” she said.
“I’ve had four of them here this morning. They’re well aware of my vocational call and they are incredibly supportive of it.
“I have some particularly older members who say ‘oh I wish I could be there’. I say you are there because you are there praying with us and for on the day and that’s just as powerful an act of social justice and love as me sitting on a cold office floor.”