Politics·Analysis

No easy answers on ISIS religious persecution, MPs learn

As CBC News reports the Canadian government may refocus its Syrian refugee effort on non-Muslim religious minorities, a House committee has been getting a crash course on just how complex that can be.

House committee studying Canadian response to conflict hears from Christian, Yazidi groups

Children from Yazidi families displaced by Islamic State group militants warm their hands over hot coals in a partially constructed building in Dohuk, northern Iraq. The House foreign affairs committee is looking into the complex question of religious persecution related to the ongoing conflict in Iraq. (Seivan Selim/The Associated Press)

As CBC News reports the Canadian government may refocus its Syrian refugee effort on non-Muslim religious minorities, a House committee has been getting a crash course on just how complex that can be.  

For the last three weeks, the foreign affairs committee has been studying Canada's response to the "violence, religious persecution and dislocation" caused by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) throughout the Middle East, with particular emphasis on the situation in Iraq.

So far, though, it's fair to say the committee seems to be especially interested in the implications of the ongoing conflict for religious minorities — particularly, though not exclusively, Christians.

Among the witness groups invited to testify thus far:

  • Catholic Near East Welfare Association
  • Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Toronto (Canada)
  • Chaldean Catholic Church (Canada)
  • Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East
  • Georgetown University's Religious Freedom Project

Debate over sponsoring Muslim families

Earlier this month, the committee heard from  Rabeas Allos, an Iraqi-Canadian who has spent the last few years helping Iraqi Christians settle in Canada through a program run by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto.

He told MPs that he's seen people in churches "arguing about whether we should be sponsoring Muslim families."

"In one church in the Toronto area, for example, they sponsored a family," he noted.

"It turned out to be Muslim and people went berserk when they found out — and they are decent, good people."

Allos said representatives from his community have met with Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander "regarding Christians, basically," as well as Yazidis.

 "They're open for suggestions, especially if it's not going to cost the taxpayers money," he told the committee.

"So we'll be having further meetings with the staff at Immigration Canada."

'We do not want to leave our land'

Hundreds of thousands of Yazidi have been forced from the Sinjar region by ISIS forces, and are currently scatterd across Kurdistan territory.

But as their faith is inextricably linked to their homelands, most have no desire to be relocated — to Canada, or anywhere else — according to Iraqi parliamentarian Vian Saeed, who testified before the committee on December 2.  

"We do not want to leave our land here where I was born, where my father was born, and where my grandfather was born," she told MPs.

"We want to stay here to live in our land peacefully again.  I'm so proud to be Kurd and I'm so proud to be Yazidi, and I want to stay in my country."

Yazidis get less support? 

Yazidi human rights advocate Khalid Haider, who appeared at the same meeting, suggested that Yazidi refugees are also unable to avail themselves of the humanitarian support offered to displaced Iraqi Christians.

"In the Kurdistan region … there are some minorities like the Christians," he noted.  

"The Catholic Church will provide them with a lot of aid. They have a backup, but in the Yazidi case, nobody is going to back us up unless countries like Canada, or the United States, or the United Nations in general send us some aid —  if that aid gets through."

In response to a question from Conservative MP Costas Menegakis, who also serves as parliamentary secretary for multiculturalism, Chaldean Catholic Church representative Reverend Niaz Toma said that his organization has no reports of Iraqi Christians currently "under the control" of ISIS.

The treatment meted out to the Yazidis, he explained, was far more brutal.  

"The way they treated the Yazidis was quite different from the way they treated Christians," he told the committee on November 27.

"Apparently the instructions were to just take the Christians out of their towns, their villages, their cities, their houses, confiscate everything — even heart medication was confiscated from an elderly person — and kick them out. The instructions with regard to the [Yazidis] were to torture them —  kill them savagely."

The group was asked about the reason for the different treatment, Tomas said.

"The answer was that in the Koran, the book they believe was dictated by God to Muhammad, Christians are described as 'The People of the Book'  and there is a verse in there that says to treat them well … So they are literally going by the Koran."

The Yazidis, however, "are, for them, blasphemers —  they don't believe in God."

 That study is expected to resume when MPs return to the Hill in the new year, with four additional meetings scheduled.

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