January 12, 2015

Religion should never be used to priorize Syrian refugees for resettlement, said Catholic agencies amid reports that the Canadian government intends to give preferential treatment to religious minorities.

The CBC and Post Media both reported that the government intends to accept into Canada only Syrian refugees who face religious persecution.

Quoting sources inside a United Nations High Commission for Refugees pledging conference in Geneva, the media outlets claimed Canada clashed with the UNHCR over the government's intended policy.

Neither the Canadian churches that privately sponsor refugees nor Syrian Christians themselves have asked the government to give special treatment to religious minorities.

In question period Dec. 12, Costas Menegakis, parliamentary secretary to Immigration Minister Chris Alexander, refused to say if the government intended to limit the resettlement program based on religion.

"We will prioritize persecuted ethnic and religious minorities, those at demonstrated risk, and we will make no apologies for that," said Menegakis.

Speaking to The Catholic Register from a massive refugee camp in Jordan, the executive director of the Archdiocese of Toronto's Office for Refugees said he would never ask the government to restrict refugee sponsorship to Christians or other religious minorities.

"It would be a big mistake to say we have to check the religion on the refugee. No. We have to check the reason why somebody has become a refugee," said Martin Mark.


Need, vulnerability and the immediate risk to individuals and families are the only proper criteria to determine which refugees should be resettled, said Father Nawras Sammour, Jesuit Refugee Service country director for Syria.

"Nobody has a monopoly on suffering in Syria. Everybody suffers," said the Syrian Jesuit in Toronto to visit Canadian aid agencies. "Common sense, we have to welcome those who are most vulnerable. That's the criteria."

A board member with the Sponsorship Agreement Holders Association of Canada, which represents most major organizations with refugee sponsorship programs, said the organization had not asked for religious limits on refugee settlement.

The board member was unaware of any discussion among sponsoring organizations, most of them churches and other faith-based organizations, about a need to restrict the program by religion.

Carl Hetu, director of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association of Canada, said he had no idea where the idea to restrict Canada's Syrian refugee intake based on religion would have come from.

"It is completely unacceptable and, in fact, irresponsible to discriminate against refugees on the basis of religion," said Canadian Council for Refugees president Loly Rico in a press release. "It goes against the fundamental principles of refugee protection."


The international community as of Dec. 9 had pledged to take in 100,000 Syrian refugees. Of that total, Canada was to take 1,300 by the end of 2014 – 200 government sponsored and the rest to be privately sponsored, mainly by faith-based agencies. Immigration and Citizenship Canada reported that 703 had arrived by Dec. 12.

Refugee sponsors have asked Ottawa to up its commitment to 10,000.

The UNHCR reports there are 3.2 million refugees currently in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and Turkey.


Given the sectarian nature of the war in Syria, it would be natural for Christians, Yazidis, Mandaeans and other religious minorities to be heavily represented among the refugees who eventually make their way to Canada, said Mark of the Archdiocese of Toronto.

"The Syrian conflict is clearly a case of sectarian violence," Mark said. "We shouldn't be afraid to say that when we talk about targeted groups. The religious minorities are targeted."

But what's true about the general population of refugees need not steer the selection of individual refugees, he said.

"Definitely exclusion (of Muslim refugees) is not a good idea and not acceptable," he said.