Ottawa — Christians are being “wiped out” in Iraq, and Canadian Catholics need to respond to this crisis the way they did to the Vietnamese boat people 30 years ago.
That was the view of some Catholic charity representatives who attended a November 29 workshop on the Iraq refugee catastrophe. The Iraq war has created the largest displaced population in the world today, according to the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
The workshop, part of the ‘Canadian Council for Refugees Fall Consultation‘ November 29 – 30, revealed 4.2 million Iraqis have left their homes. Many have fled to neighboring Syria and Jordan, putting massive pressure on their infrastructures. There are fears these countries could close their borders if they do not get more international assistance.
Though UNHCR Ottawa senior protection officer Hy Shelow noted there have been some improvements in Iraq recently, UNHCR is not advising people to go back.
Carl Hetu, the national secretary for the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) Canada, told the more than 100 representatives of charities and NGOs attending the workshop that the work of CNEWA in the Middle East corroborates the plight of the refugees outlined by the workshop panel.
Hetu made an impassioned plea for Iraqi Christians who are in danger of systematic extinction at the hands of extremists. As a minority, they are being targeted, he said. “They have no resources and nowhere to turn.”
In Iraq, there is an “incredible level of sectarian attack” but it meets with impunity, he said.
Yet the sectarian violence has led to fear and prejudice in Canada — fears that opening our doors to Iraqi refugees will lead to their bringing sectarian violence here, Hetu said. That view needs to be challenged, he said.
Hetu said Arabs have suffered from tremendous bad press since 9-11, and that has created a public perception that needs to be overcome. He said most people assume all Arabs are Muslim, not realizing that some of the oldest Christian communities in the world are also Arab and still living in the Middle East.
“We have to inform Canadian Catholics, those are our brothers, they are suffering,” he said, noting this was one of the first Christian communities in the world that has sacrificed a great deal. “And we’re going to abandon them? There’s something wrong.”
Many of the perpetrators of the violence have come in from neighboring countries, leaving not only Christians but Sunnis and Shiites in the crossfire.
CNEWA helps refugees from all religions, but as a Catholic charity it is natural to experience an added solidarity with persecuted Christians, he said.
Following the workshop, he joined Michael Fullan, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Toronto, Jack Panozzo, program manager for social justice and advocacy for Catholic Charities and Yosief Alazar Aray, refugee sponsorship counselor for Catholic Cross Cultural Services in Scarborough, Ontario, to brainstorm ways to raise awareness of the plight of Iraqi refugees. Aray had moderated the workshop panel.
Araya noted that even though Canada is a large country, and it takes in about 260,000 immigrants a year, it opens it doors to only about 11,000 refugees. He has been looking for parishes willing to sponsor Iraqi refugees. He has found 30 so far, out of 220 in the Toronto diocese.
“What we want to do is try and give it a little more profile, take a look and see if we can do more, and where can we do more,” said Panozzo, noting one approach might be to encourage the government to bring in more Iraqi refugees.
“Our concern is for all refugees regardless, Muslim or Christian,” he said. “Naturally we’re more acutely aware of what’s happening to Iraqi Christians.”
They strategized on how to increase awareness of their plight and raise the level of parish sponsorships.
“Look back at what happened with boat people from Vietnam,” said Fullan. Canadians responded with great generosity to bring many refugees who fled the Communist regime in leaky boats.
There are concerns, however, that encouraging too many Christians to leave Iraq will further decimate the dwindling Christian population there.
— Courtesy Canadian Catholic News. Please do not reprint without permission.