Archbishop Collins, archdiocese step up efforts to help Iraqi refugees

  • August 10, 2010

TORONTO - For Toronto’s Archbishop Thomas Collins the fate of Iraqi Christians trapped in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon isn’t just another tough case in an unfair world full of too much heartbreak. For him, this one is personal.

Collins has written to his fellow bishops across Canada about the fate of Iraqi Christian refugees, asking them to encourage refugee sponsorship in their dioceses. He has urged pastors in Toronto to get their parishes involved in sponsoring refugees.

But it’s more than words. He’s also sponsoring a refugee family himself.

“Helping refugees is important in this world in which so many people are suffering, and I want personally to assist in this,” Collins told The Catholic Register in an e-mail.

Like any parish sponsoring a refugee family, Collins will wait months before he gets to meet the family picked out for him by the Office for Refugees, Archdiocese of Toronto. But wait times for Iraqi refugees are among the shortest for privately sponsored refugees.

As a Christian community, the Church in Toronto should feel a special bond with Christian refugees from Iraq, said Collins.

“We should always seek to help any people who are suffering, and the people of our archdiocese have always done so,” Collins wrote. “But at this time many Christians are suffering because of their faith and we need in a particular way to reach out to them.”

Collins created the Office for Refugees not long after becoming archbishop of Toronto. Last year he set a goal of doubling the number of refugees sponsored by parishes and religious communities in Toronto.

Persuading all 222 parishes in Toronto to either sponsor a refugee family or contribute to another parish’s sponsorship is the goal for the Office of Refugees’ One Parish One Family program, said its executive director Martin Mark.

“Theoretically, each and every parish in the archdiocese might want to consider either doing a full sponsorship or — just morally maybe — just do the fundraising to give it to another parish,” Mark said.

The example of the archbishop has made it easier to persuade parishes to be involved, said Mark.

Given the number of Catholics in Toronto who were refugees themselves or are descended from refugees, it’s not a tough sell, Mark said.

“In the Lithuanian Martyrs parish, which has nothing to do with Iraq, they understood years ago that regardless of whether (the refugees) are Lithuanian, if they are persecuted and we have the means to help, why not?” said Mark.

Mark spent all of July in Damascus, Beirut and Amman interviewing refugee families, choosing 200 cases for future sponsorship through the Office for Refugees. Mark is also in talks with Citizenship and Immigration Canada on ways of speeding up the sponsorship process.

Getting the private sponsorship program working better and faster is a particular responsibility of churches who helped create it more than 30 years ago, during the Vietnamese boat people crisis.

“We must wake up and say that definitely the good tradition and the values (of the private sponsorship program) must be preserved, but we need to go into the 21st century with an electronic approach with e-mails, modern communication and an open mind,” he said.

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