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Religious minorities in Middle East need priority

By Deborah Gyapong
Canadian Catholic News


OTTAWA (CCN) — Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) Canada national director Carl Hétu said Christian and other religious minorities should get priority from Canada as refugees.

Upon returning from a trip to refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon, Hétu said he was troubled by news reports denouncing the previous Conservative government policy that gave added focus to persecuted religious minorities in the Middle East. “I thought it was terrible,” he said.

“It’s important to recognize that in the Middle East, when you are a Christian right now, the chances of being persecuted are high, especially in Iraq and Syria,” Hétu said. “That needs to be recognized by the federal government of Canada.”

“The difference with the Muslims I met is they are all waiting for the war to be over to go back home, so they are waiting it out,” he said. “If you are a Christian, you can’t go back.”

“It is easier for Muslims to go back to a Muslim town than for Christians to go back to a neighbourhood that is destroyed and gone, especially if they have been kicked out because of their faith,” he said. “Some of the Christians told me their house is occupied now by Muslims. They were told this is no longer your house, particularly in Iraq.”

Aid to the Church in Need Canada national director Marie-Claude Lalonde said religious minorities “are definitely targeted and disappearing.”

“We are talking more and more of a genocide against Christians,” she said. She said she was not aware, however, if the government had in fact changed its policy.

The Liberal government is instead focusing on “complete families; women at risk; and persons identified as vulnerable due to membership in the LGBTI community,” according to the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship ministry. They are not differentiating among religious groups.

Both Hétu and Lalonde stressed the churches and partners they support in the Middle East help all vulnerable people, including Muslims. Lalonde and Hétu both recognize Muslims need help as refugees.

Lalonde pointed out that no one, Christian or Muslim, can go back now, but if the fighting dies down, even for Muslims, returning “will be difficult, even for them.”

“The bishops of Syria and Iraq are begging us to help keep Christians in the Middle East,” she said. “We are trying to help them as much as possible. They hope and they certainly pray for it, the Christians will be able to get back to their own countries, their own regions.”

“How easy it’s going to be, I don’t know,” Lalonde said. She, too, noted that when ISIS moved into northern Iraq, fatwahs were issued telling Muslims they could take all the goods of the Christians. “Will it be possible for these two groups to live together? It’s a big question,” she said. “It’s going to be difficult for both groups in that regard.”

“We’re hearing about starvation; we’re hearing about violence in the refugee camps,” she said. “Christians are reluctant to go to refugee camps because they fear they are going to be targeted. It’s definitely not easy for them.”

Hétu said Iraqi refugees he visited in Jordan and Lebanon are thankful to Canadians for their support through CNEWA and other charities “to help them survive this nightmare.”

Thanks to the donations, they have warm places to stay, food and medicine, he said. “They were telling me there’s no sense of emergency now; they have a sense of security but they are still refugees and, as refugees, they live without hope at this moment.

Many Iraqi Christians do not understand why Syrian refugees are being accepted in Canada ahead of them. “Some have been there much longer than the Syrians, so there’s bad blood there. They feel forgotten again, especially the Iraqi Christians.”

Many Iraqi Christians thought their application would be fast-tracked to Canada, but the Syrian crisis last fall “put a stop to their hope,” Hétu said.

The Syrian refugees he met, like the Iraqis, know they can “never go back to their homes either, particularly the Christians because their life was taken away by radical Islamists in Syria,” he said.

Hétu also observed great fatigue among the people helping with refugees. The presence of 1.4 million refugees in a small country like Lebanon, with a population of 4.4 million, is also putting pressure on local populations.

Both Hétu and Lalonde hope UN-hosted peace talks in Geneva will lead to an end of the fighting in Syria.

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