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A 'Christians first' policy wouldn't have saved Aylan Kurdi.

It was a photo that could change the course of history.

Last week, news was dominated by the heartbreaking image of a toddler’s limp body being carried from the shoreline, wrapped in the arms of a Turkish soldier. The dead refugee boy caused parents to hug their kids just that little bit tighter before bed and prompted office water cooler conversations to take place in hushed, mournful tones.

Aylan (left) and his brother Little (right). Photo: Twitter.

When you saw that picture of Aylan, what was your first thought? Did you wonder about the tragic circumstances he and his family were fleeing? Did you imagine his final awful moments of life? Did you want to bundle him up in your arms and protect him from danger?

Or did you want to know what religion he was?

Because according to our government, faith should be a determining factor in whether or not we provide desperate people with refuge. In whether or not we turn our backs and say “not our problem”.

That image of Aylan Kurdi may yet change the course of history.

His vulnerability and innocence, even in death, tunnelled into the public’s consciousness in a way that countless unnamed, unidentified masses fleeing for their lives never could. Because Aylan Kurdi provided a devastatingly human face for a tragedy happening on the other side of the globe.

Suddenly, we started to care again.

Seemingly overnight, the public’s perception of refugees shifted – slightly but markedly – away from the pragmatic and towards the compassionate.

Right-wing newspaper headlines abandoned their usual migrant demonising rhetoric. Labor and the Greens called on the Government to accept more refugees from Syria, on top of the current humanitarian intake. The Foreign Minister and other frontbenchers began pressuring the Prime Minister. Reports from the Coalition party room meeting was that MPs and Senators felt community attitudes were changing.

And then – just as quickly as they came – fairness and empathy evaporated. The conversation turned from how many people Australia might be able to help, to who we should be helping.

Frontbencher Malcolm Turnbull indicated that he would like to see more Syrian Christians resettled in Australia. The Prime Minister and Foreign Minister’s language emphasised the importance of assisting persecuted “minorities”. Leader of the Government in the Senate, Eric Abetz said outright that if Australia were to resettle more Syrian refugees, those of Christian faith should be prioritised.

“I think the Australian people would see a need for that to be a focus,” Abetz told the media, adding that Christians are “the most persecuted group in the world”. “Given the plight of Christians, I think a very strong case can be made that Christians should be prioritised… it should be based on need,” he said.

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Eric Abetz: “Given the plight of Christians, I think a very strong case can be made that Christians should be prioritised… it should be based on need.”

Can you read between the lines? The hidden message isn’t all that well hidden. In fact the ABC reported it earlier yesterday: government MPs can stomach a few more refugees, just so long as they aren’t Muslims.

Australia’s refugee debate has been racially and religiously charged for well over a decade. Since 2001, the fateful year of the September 11 attacks and the Tampa crisis, immigration has become a political football. Over time, the policy discussion has increasingly become one of unfeeling hardness; an almost brutally pragmatic approach from both major parties.

Frontbencher Malcolm Turnbull (left) indicated that he would like to see more Syrian Christians resettled in Australia. Tomorrow, the Tomorrow, the Abbott (right) Government is expected to announce that Australia will bomb Islamic State controlled parts of Syria.

With the election of the Abbott Government, Australia drew a line in the sand: in order to prevent deaths at sea, we would approach the asylum seeker issue with dead eyes and cold hearts.

Stop the boats. Secure the borders. Kill the terrorists.

Team Australia. With maximum flags.

Related: “Brutal”: The New York Times condemns Australia’s refugee policy.

But last week Aylan Kurdi changed all that, when his little body washed up on a Turkish beach. His image jolted our country’s dormant compassion back into operation.

For a moment there, we remembered our melodic promise to ‘those who come across the seas’.

And yet an increased Syrian refugee intake from Australia would not have saved Aylan Kurdi. Not if it were to follow the ‘Christians first’ policy direction that is being foreshadowed. Because Aylan was Muslim and so his life would have been a non-priority.

Aylan Kurdi. (Photo: Twitter)

Tomorrow, the Abbott Government is expected to announce that Australia will bomb Islamic State controlled parts of Syria. The areas targeted will be those, which are largely populated by Muslims. They are Muslim Kurds and Muslim Arabs who are under threat from both the Islamic State and persecution by the Assad regime. They are Muslims trying to live their lives in peace and whose safe asylum Australia will deprioritise.

Related: Captives of the Islamic State are being ‘bought and traded like cattle‘.

It takes a special kind of cruelty to bomb a nation, claiming you wish to protect its people from an evil force, while at the same time refusing them refuge. It is a cruelty akin to lifting a flailing boy from the water and checking which God he prays to before making the decision to save him or let him drown.

Surely, surely this beautiful, safe, lucky country – a country with ‘boundless plains to share’ – won’t allow itself to stoop to cruelty that extreme.

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