OTTAWA (CCN) — Catholic overseas aid agencies welcomed news the federal government is extending the deadline for the Syria Emergency Relief Fund to Feb. 29.
The previous Conservative government had created the Syria Emergency Relief Fund last September, promising to match dollar for dollar contributions up to a cap of $100 million to registered aid agencies providing assistance to Syrians affected by the five-year civil war. However, by the year-end deadline, the fund had raised only $12 million.
“Your support over the coming months will be crucial,” said International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau at a news conference Jan. 7, flanked by representatives of many of Canada’s top charitable agencies, among them Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace (CCODP) executive director David Leduc.
“It’s a big mistake to assume the level of generosity of Canadians was disappointing over the last several months,” Leduc told CCN after the news conference. “As the minister said, there was a huge focus on receiving, welcoming the refugee community coming to Canada and I think many Canadians took that to heart, and have contributed very generously to those efforts and continue to do so.”
“The message the minister and all of our organizations were hopefully sending today is to remember the refugees will keep coming and the situation will continue to get worse if we don’t also contribute significant resources and efforts on resolving the conflict and bringing aid to those who need it most on the ground at the moment.”
The news of the deadline extension came as images of emaciated and starving children were released from Madaya, a city that has been under siege by the Syrian government.
Carl Hétu, national director of the Catholic Near East Welfare Assocation (CNEWA) Canada, has been warning of the danger of starvation for some time. “Famine has now become a tool of war for the last two or three years,” he said. The television pictures have exposed how “food is used as a weapon, in this case starving an entire city.”
“It’s been happening in other cities over the last few years,” he said. He pointed out the government is not the only guilty party in using famine; rebel groups have also used it.
“A lot of people are being threatened every day if they don’t follow this rebel group or that rebel group or adhere to the government side,” he said.
Leduc said Minister Bibeau had responded to a request from the civil society/NGO community to extend the deadline.
“It was listened to and well-received and that’s a trend this government has shown since the first day it came into office, one of great transparency and a desire to listen to Canadians,” Leduc said.
Though Canadian governments have set up matching relief funds previously, they have usually been in response to a catastrophe such as earthquakes in Haiti or Nepal or typhoons in the Philippines. This is the first such fund created for an ongoing humanitarian crisis. Bibeau said the crisis represents the largest in terms of refugees since the Second World War.
Hétu said Christians in Syria face additional hardship in the region. “In the first two years, Christians were simply victims of war like everybody else,” he said. “As the conflict has degenerated, Christians have become a target because of their faith.”
Government aid, whether from Europe or North America, treats “everyone as equals,” and makes need the “most important approach,” said Hétu.
CCODP has raised $2.7 million for Syria relief, of which $2 million is eligible for the matching funds program, Leduc said.
CNEWA Canada has raised $800,000 in eligible funds, according to Hétu. “If you put Christians as a particular target group, that doesn’t fit the government agenda.”
However, for CCODP, Christians are often among those most in need.
“Our approach and policy is as it relates to the conflict has always been to focus our efforts on areas and individuals and communities that are the most vulnerable, and are suffering the most as a result of this. In that case the Christian communities are very high on the agenda,” said Leduc. “I think it’s important to remember this is a conflict that will continue to leave long-lasting damages on the ground and it will be an area that will require our concentration, our help, our assistance and our efforts for not only the months to come, but for most likely several years going forward.”
Though CNEWA and Aid to the Church in Need are both eligible for matching funds, Hétu said both agencies focus on Christians, though the programs churches in the region sponsor help everyone regardless of religious faith.