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Pope's message of support for Sydney aboriginal medical centre

An appeal for Vatican backing in its campaign for the reversal of an Archdiocesan decision to end its 'rent-free' tenure of land ajoining St Vincent's Church, Redfern, has been boosted by an encouraging letter from the Pope.

The letter from the Vatican was addressed to Dr Naomi Mayers, chief executive officer of the Aboriginal Medical Service, with whom parish priest Fr Ted Kennedy has been working since 1971.

She had written to him asking that security of tenure be given to the medical service over a parcel of land behind St Vincent's on which the medical clinic is located. She pointed out that Aboriginal people owned the land until white settlement.

"We understand that you must deal with matters of great international import and that, usually, a local matter of such specificity would only become of concern if significant matters of principle were at stake," Mayers wrote. "We believe our case is symbolic of deep and significant issues, issues which touch on morality and the church's attempts to promote Christian healing throughout the world."

A delighted Fr Kennedy read the letter to his congregation yesterday, saying: "I am very pleased." The congregation clapped.

The letter was signed on 23 November. On 22 November, the Pope issued in Rome the document Ecclesia in Oceania , in which he referred to "the shameful injustices done to indigenous peoples in Oceania" and to the "special case" of the "Australian Aborigines, whose culture struggles to survive".

The archdiocesan secretary, Brian Lucas, has said the centre occupies the premises rent free and that "there are limits to the extent to which church patrimony can be alienated". Archbishop George Pell confirmed in November that the land would neither be handed back to its original owners, nor would the lease be guaranteed past 2008.

After a call by the Australian Catholic Bishops' social justice committee to restore stolen land, the Sisters of Mercy handed their property to the Redfern Aboriginal community in 1978. The medical service, which provides medical, dental, aged care, drug and alcohol services to about 55,000 patients a year, has occupied the premises since. But the archdiocese has held on to the other half of the land.