Government faces questions about anti-Muslim bias over Syrian refugees

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TOPSHOTS Displaced Syrian children sit on a tarp after heavy rains in the Bab Al-Salama camp for people fleeing the violence in Syria on December 11, 2014, on the border with Turkey. Aid workers fear a major humanitarian crisis for millions of Syrian refugees in the Middle East after funding gaps forced the United Nations to cut food assistance for 1.7 million people.
Photograph by: BARAA AL-HALABI , Ottawa Citizen
The Conservative government is facing renewed questions about an alleged anti-Muslim bias following revelations it wants to cherry-pick which Syrian refugees will be accepted into Canada.

Sources say the government wants to prioritize religious minorities as a condition for resettling thousands more Syrian refugees in Canada over the next two years.

But the United Nations has resisted Canada’s request, as its policy is to help the most vulnerable, no matter their religious background. This includes families led by women, torture victims and those with serious medical conditions.

The disagreement is reportedly why Canada remained silent at a major UN conference in Geneva this week as other countries promised to help the world body resettle 100,000 Syrian refugees by 2017.

Canada previously agreed to accept 1,300 Syrians by the end of this year, though fewer than 500 had arrived by mid-November.

About 3 million Syrians have fled into neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq since fierce fighting between Syrian government and rebel forces erupted in 2011. The situation has worsened with the rise of the Islamic State (ISIL) and other extremist groups.

Costas Menegakis, who serves as parliamentary secretary to Immigration Minister Chris Alexander, defended the Conservative government’s focus on religious minorities in the House of Commons Friday.

“We have seen countless examples in recent years of people being persecuted for their religious beliefs,” he said. “We will prioritize persecuted ethnic and religious minorities, those at demonstrated risk, and we will make no apologies for that.”

Menegakis added that any suggestion the government was interested in helping only one group of people was “categorically false.”

The UN High Commission for Refugees’ representative in Canada, Furio de Angelis, was not available for comment Friday.

The desire to accept only religious minorities has sparked fresh concerns the Conservative government’s refusal to do more in response to the Syrian refugee crisis is because the majority of those affected are Muslim.

Sunni Muslims account for nearly three-quarters of all Syrians, according to the CIA Factbook, while other Muslim groups such as Shias, Alawis and Ismailis represent another 16 per cent of the population. Christians and a small number of Jews represent the remaining 10 per cent.

“Obviously that continues to linger as the concern here,” said Amnesty International Canada secretary-general Alex Neve. “That this in some way, shape or form is about the fact that the majority of refugees fleeing Syria are Muslim.”

Amnesty International is just one of many groups, including refugee organizations and the Syrian-Canadian community, as well as opposition parties, that have been pressing the government to open the doors to another 10,000 Syrian refugees.

Syrian Canadian Council spokesman Faisal Alazem said religious minorities make up an important and vibrant part of Syria’s culture, “and no one is suggesting that non-Muslims should not be protected.”

“But you treat people based on the need and on the vulnerability,” he said. “If the government is looking at the Middle East or Syria from only a sectarian angle, that would be a huge disappointment.”

NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar accused the government of breaking from the international community as well as Canada’s own tradition of accepting those most in need of protection, no matter their backgrounds.

“It’s unprecedented and going in a terrible direction,” agreed Liberal immigration critic John McCallum. “I find this shocking. To impose a religious filter is just not right.”

The head of one of Canada’s largest Muslim organizations, the National Council of Canadian Muslims, issued a statement Friday saying he was “deeply troubled” and calling on the government to come clean on its intentions.

“It is inconceivable that our government would suggest implementing a policy that creates a two-tier refugee system in which vulnerable people are assessed based on their personal religious beliefs rather than on their needs,” NCCM executive director Ihsaan Gardee said.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada officials told Immigration Minister Chris Alexander earlier this year that Canada could accept 3,000 more government-assisted refugees in 2015, 2,700 in 2016 and 4,700 in 2017.

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Original source article: Government faces questions about anti-Muslim bias over Syrian refugees