Canadian priest accused of gambling away $380,000 meant for refugees

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By Ishaan Tharoor
Clothing donated for an expected influx of Syrian refugees is sorted by volunteers for size and gender at a theater rehearsal space in Toronto on Nov. 24, 2015. (Chris Helgren/Reuters)
According to reports in the Canadian media, an Ontario-based Catholic priest is under investigation on suspicion of gambling away funds that had been set aside to provide for refugees newly settled in Canada.

Father Amer Saka, a priest at the St. Joseph Chaldean Catholic Church in London, Ontario, is suspected to have lost roughly half a million Canadian dollars (equivalent to $380,000 U.S.) that had been entrusted to him by local families keen on sponsoring new arrivals from the Middle East.

Saka phoned the church’s bishop, Emanuel Shaleta, last month to confess that the funds were lost.

“He called me on the phone and . . . said he lost all the money. I said, ‘How?’ He said, ‘Gambling,’” Shaleta told the Toronto Star this weekend. He has since checked the priest into an addiction center. Investigators are examining the situation, though no formal charges have been filed.

“We believe that Father Saka has a serious gambling problem and that these funds may have been used for that purpose. Since there is an investigation going on, we cannot confirm what he’s saying,” Shaleta added.

In a separate interview with the London Free Press, Shaleta lamented the plight of the seven to eight families that had given their donations to Saka. “They trusted him. They did not give it as a gift. They were trusting the priest. They didn’t ask for receipts,” he said.

Canada’s government-led program to give sanctuary to tens of thousands of Syrian and Iraqi refugees involves the combined efforts of the state as well as private donations to sponsor refugee arrivals. Saka was in charge of funds raised by the Hamilton Diocese to sponsor 20 Iraqi refugees.

It’s not clear from reports whether these refugees would be from Saka’s own Chaldean community — which is one of the world’s oldest Christian populations and still has its base in Baghdad.

Since being unveiled late last year by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the government scheme to house refugees has proceeded fitfully. The hiccups that have been reported are usually ascribed to the public-sector side of the program — private and ecclesiastical sponsorships appear to have been better resourced.

The past decade has been grim for Iraq’s Christian community. The ravages of the Islamic State over the past two years emptied the ancient city of Mosul of its long-standing Christian population; in total, about 125,000 Iraqi Christians of various sects were forced to flee their homes.

In 2014, Patriarch Louis Sako, the top figure in the Chaldean Catholic Church, which both Saka and Shaleta serve, likened the perils faced by his flock to the apocalyptic days of the Mongol invasion more than eight centuries prior. He also held the 2003 U.S.-led invasion in Iraq “indirectly responsible” for the political instability and sectarian strife that has prompted Iraq’s exodus of Christians.

Before the invasion, more than a million Christians lived in Iraq. A decade later, that number is less than 400,000 and dropping.

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Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.