Threat of Iraq without Christians is real - Canada's response

  • March 25, 2008

{mosimage}TORONTO - With martyred Archbishop Paulos Rahho’s portrait on display before the altar, 1,000 Chaldean Catholics gathered at Toronto’s Good Shepherd Chaldean parish March 14 to pray the Stations of the Cross in ancient Syriac, a language directly descended from Jesus’ own Aramaic tongue.

Archbishop Hanna Zora, pastor of the 10,000-strong parish in the northwest corner of the city, and Toronto’s Roman Catholic Archbishop Thomas Collins prayed along with the Iraqi Catholic community.

Among recent arrivals in Toronto from Iraq’s devastated Christian population, Rahho’s nephew Odai was there to pray the Lenten Stations of the Cross, and for his murdered uncle.

Canadian response to refugee crisis lacking

Catholic Register Staff

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates there are 2.2 million internally displaced Iraqis living as refugees inside their own country. Each month ongoing violence in Iraq displaces 40,000 to 60,000 people.

Another two million refugees have left Iraq, with 1.2-1.4 million in Syria, 500,000 to 750,000 in Jordan and others in Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon and elsewhere.

While Christians represent only about five per cent of Iraq’s pre-war population, they now constitute about 40 per cent of the refugees in neighbouring countries, according to the UNHCR.

The Canadian Council for Refugees characterizes the Canadian response to the largest refugee population in the world as wholly inadequate.

Since 2002 Canada has accepted 5,008 Iraqi refugees. Before 2007 the numbers of Iraqi refugees accepted into Canada were actually trending downward:

Iraqi refugees to Canada
*(preliminary data)

A spokesperson for Citizenship and Immigration Canada told The Catholic Register the government has committed to increasing resettlement places for Iraqi refugees, but the department has not yet set a target for 2008.

“These requests are being expedited,” she said. “They’re getting priority processing.”

Acceptance rates for Iraqi refugee claimants is 80 per cent.

Staff resources dedicated to expediting Iraqi refugee claims are inadequate to the scale of the problem, said Janet Dench, Canadian Council for Refugees executive director. Canada lacks the political will to help Iraqis, she said.

“It’s not fair to blame the bureaucrats. If they’re not given the resources to do something extra then they can’t make a cake out of nothing.”

“He is a martyr for Christianity,” Odai Rahho told The Catholic Register.

Still struggling with English, Rahho used an interpreter to stress that his uncle’s fate is also the fate of his homeland.

“It’s not only Christians. All the Iraqi people have suffered,” he said.

Among non-Christian Iraqi refugees in Toronto the prospect of a future Iraq without Christians is unthinkable.

“Iraq without Christian people? I can’t imagine,” said Buthina Rahif.

Christians, secular Muslims and those who have separated their politics from their religion, Mandeans (an ancient sect that follows John the Baptist) and others find themselves on the outside of an Iraq transformed by extremism, said Raffi. He blames the American occupation for setting communities against each other that have lived in peace for more than 1,000 years.

Raffi declined to give The Catholic Register his full name for fear of  what terror networks and gangsters might do to his family in Iraq.

Ishak Resko has family and life-long friends stuck in Syria and Jordan, just like most of the other parishioners at the Chaldean parish. With refugees crowding into Damascus, Syria and Amman, Jordan’s inflation is now making the lives of Iraqi refugees even more precarious, he said. It takes $1,000 to $1,200 a month to keep a family in Damascus, where the refugees cannot legally work, said Resko.

Many Chaldean families are making sacrifices to send money to their refugee relatives, he said.

Alexam Hanna Askendar has been trying to get his relatives to Canada for more than a year, and so far has heard nothing substantial from Citizenship and Immigration Canada about the status of his application to sponsor them. Recently his relatives were forced to move out of Amman, where they could no longer afford the rent. In a small town outside the capital city, however, his cousins have no access to United Nations’ refugee services.

Iraqi immigration lawyer Ghina Ali says families in Syria are in the dark about their applications to join family in Canada.

“Your application is in process, in the queue — thank you. That’s their answer,” said Ali.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada told The Catholic Register Damascus refugee applications have been “expedited” but could not say what expedited means in terms of how long refugees will wait. Ali said Iraqi families in Toronto are typically waiting two years to see a group five sponsorship application get all the way through the bureaucracy. She said understaffed embassy teams are asking refugees and sponsors to provide the same documents over and over again.

The Iraqi crisis is the largest ongoing refugee crisis in the world right now, but it gets almost no attention from governments or the media, said Catholic Near East Welfare Association Canadian representative Carl Hetu.

“It’s been a crisis for the last four years,” he said.

So far the crisis has failed to generate the desperate images of Darfur or the Vietnamese boat people crisis of the 1980s, he said.

If anything is going to be done for Christian refugees in Damascus and Amman it’s going to be up to Canadian Catholic parishes to make it happen, he said. Parishes are going to have to volunteer to sponsor refugee families, and they have to start pressuring their members of Parliament to speed up the resettlement process, he said.

“It’s important for Canadian Catholics to be aware of what’s going on,” Hetu said.

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