Faith Leaders Defend Syrian Muslim Refugees

From The Catalyst Spring 2015

Near the end of 2014, reports emerged indicating that the Government of Canada planned to prioritize religious minorities when resettling refugees from Syria. This came amid increasing criticism of the government’s failure to meet even its dismal target of resettling 1,300 Syrian refugees by the end of the year.

Canada has traditionally relied on the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to refer cases it has determined to be the most pressing for resettlement. The UNHCR urges countries to be non-discriminatory and to select refugees based on need. This typically includes survivors of torture or sexual violence, women or children at risk, and those with special medical needs.

“No matter what their faith or whether their faith is different than ours, God calls us to extend mercy and care to those who are in need and to those who are persecuted.”

-Ida Kaastra Mutoigo Director, World Renew Canada

Refugee and human rights advocates condemned the government’s new approach as discriminatory. When asked for clarification, Costas Menegakis, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, did not deny the reports. In fact, he defended the government’s position stating, “We will prioritize persecuted ethnic and religious minorities, those at demonstrated risk, and we will not apologize for that.”

The government regularly denounces refugees who arrive by irregular means as “queue jumpers.” Yet prioritizing religious minorities is the same thing. By choosing which refugees to resettle on the basis of any other characteristic than demonstrated need, the government is, in effect, moving a certain category of refugees to the front of the line.

This is not to say that there are not legitimate refugees who belong to religious minority groups. However, it is a fact that the majority of those forced to flee have been Muslim—the precise group that the federal government would choose to overlook.

It is unclear where the idea for this decision came from. Neither churches, which are largely responsible for privately sponsoring refugees, nor Syrian Christians themselves requested that the government give special treatment to religious minorities. And so, faith communities across Canada responded.

Inter-Faith Statement

In a remarkable display of solidarity, CPJ and the Canadian Council for Refugees brought together 25 Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, and Sikh leaders. They signed on to a statement declaring their opposition to the selection of Syrian refugees according to religion. The statement noted, “All of our religions teach the fundamental worth of every human being. A person should never be excluded from refugee protection or resettlement on the basis of his or her religion.”

“There is a standard to assess [refugees for resettlement] based on need for a reason,” said Amira Elghawaby, Human Rights Coordinator for the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) and one of the signatories to the statement. As an organization that advocates on behalf of Canadian Muslims, she said, the NCCM felt it was important to voice their concern. But she stressed that “even if it were another minority and not Muslims who would be adversely affected, the NCCM would still have signed the statement” because it is wrong to discriminate against any religion.

Bernie Farber, a founding member of the Jewish Refugee Action Network, also signed on to the statement. When asked why he considered this an important initiative, he responded, “The emphasis should be on the protection and defense of the vulnerable, regardless of religion.” Farber also noted that “this issue is certainly special as it has galvanized all people with a focus on social justice, whether they are from the left or right of the political spectrum.”

Uncertain Future

The government has said little on the subject since it announced in early January that it will accept 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next three years. It is unclear whether the federal government still intends to prioritize religious minorities. It’s also not clear if they will exclude other categories of refugees entirely.

In the face of this uncertainty, it is important that faith communities and organizations continue to show the solidarity exemplified by the inter-faith statement. Despite the varied religious backgrounds of its signatories, the fundamental message is clear: discriminating against people of any religion, particularly in a case where individuals are so vulnerable, is unacceptable.

“No matter what their faith or whether their faith is different than ours, God calls us to extend mercy and care to those who are in need and to those who are persecuted,” says Ida Kaastra Mutoigo, Director of World Renew Canada. “What should be our goal as Canadians is to stop the injustices and any further suffering by welcoming refugees whose desire, like ours, is to dwell in safety and religious freedom.”

Read the “Inter-Faith Statement on Syrian Refugees” and see all 25 signatories here.

Syrian Women

Kathryn Teeluck is CPJ’s former policy intern.

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