Catholics step up response to Iraqi Christian refugee crisis

  • December 9, 2010
Toronto Archbishop Thomas CollinsTORONTO - Spurred by the exodus of Iraqi Christians, the archdiocese of Toronto doubled the number of Iraqi refugee families it sponsored in 2010 to 190.

The boom in Iraqi refugee sponsorships was fueled by 40 new refugee sponsorship committees or initiatives aimed at rescuing Iraqi refugees. The Office of Refugees, Archdiocese of Toronto is currently handling sponsorship files for  approximately 250 refugees from around the world.

The ordinary Catholic response to the plight of Iraqi Christian refugees has been the most significant development in Canada’s refugee system since faith groups across Canada pushed their government into creating the private refugee sponsorship system during the Vietnamese boat people crisis 30 years ago, Office of Refugees, Archdiocese of Toronto executive director Martin Mark told more than 100 Iraqi Christians and parish refugee advocates at the Salam Club in Toronto Dec. 3.

“It is you. It is not the government of Canada” who recognized the urgency of the Iraqi refugee crisis, said Mark.

To make the refugee sponsorship system work better, the archdiocese has launched a refugee sponsorship fund that will help parishes organize fundraising and expenses. Sponsoring a refugee family can cost as much as $40,000. The centralized banking and accounting system will make it easier for parishes to co-sponsor refugees.

Mark spent the summer in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan interviewing Christian refugee families and compiling a list of 700 sponsorship-eligible families. The list has been distributed to diocesan refugee offices across Canada so they can be matched up with parishes willing to sponsor a family.

Refugee sponsorship will not solve the problems of Middle Eastern Christians terrorized by militias and struggling under undemocratic, police-state regimes, said Archbishop Thomas Collins after reading his five-minute presentation to the Oct. 10-25 Synod of Bishops for the Middle East. While it’s important to provide a solution to Christians who can’t return home to Baghdad or Mosul, it’s just as important that Catholics here support Christian communities in the Middle East, said the archbishop.

“It (the Middle East) is our home. It is where Christianity comes from,” said Collins. “We are one body, one body in Christ and we do not stand alone.

“It’s outrageous that Christians should not be able to live in the Middle East in peace, where they have lived for 2,000 years.”

The Catholic Near East Welfare Association of Canada has received donations even from Muslims concerned by how Christian communities are being decimated in the region, said CNEWA Canada executive director Carl Hetu.

“The Christians of the Middle East, they’re being murdered. They’re being attacked,” said Hetu. “People need to know. They need to know what’s going on.”

“The most important thing that was said is that we must be persistent,” said Teresa Olegario of the refugee sponsorship committee at Sts. Peter and Paul parish in Mississauga.

The group has only recently formed and won’t likely greet a refugee family at the airport for another year.

Immigrants from the region are struggling to establish themselves in Canada, but they have to do more to sponsor refugees, said Tara Tokally from the Syrian Orthodox refugee committee.

“There is a need. There is a huge need. Their lives are in danger,” said Tokally.

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