Bishop's Blog

Response to Religious Persecution in Iraq

I am distraught, but I pardon our brothers who have killed so many Iraqis like themselves. God pardons them and meanwhile I pray that they be enlightened. But we, in any case, will never leave this country: we are just one family, Christians and Muslims, one large family.

These are the words of His Beatitude Emmanuel III Delly, Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldees in commenting on the attack against Iraqi Christian Churches on Sunday August 1.

He recently recalled that moment: “A sudden pain, I was celebrating mass in a small church in Al-Mansur when they told me of the two car bombs in Baghdad. Half an hour later the car bombs in Baghdad were four and those in Mosul two. At that hour our churches were full of faithful. What fault had these faithful? Only that of being Christians. And how many families have lost their women, their children, their husbands. They lost everything on a Sunday afternoon that we Christian Iraqis will never forget.”

When asked about the origin of the attacks Delly answered: “I examine the facts and I say that there was a carefully studied plan, a coordinated plan. It was certainly Islamic extremists who burned the liquor stores of Christians in the last weeks and months, but faced with this attack I can only raise my eyes to Heaven and pray God for the brothers who aimed to kill us.”

It is not surprising that at the end of his general audience on October 27th, John Paul II said in regard to Iraq and in particular for the Christians who live there: “Each day I accompany in prayer the dear Iraqi population, which is intent on reconstructing the institutions of their country. At the same time, I encourage the Christians to continue to offer with generosity their own critical contribution toward heartfelt reconciliation. Finally, I express my deep sympathy for the pain of the victims’ families and for the suffering of the hostages and all innocent people struck by the blind barbarity of terrorism.”

Terrorism, of course, should not be identified with any religion. Terrorist barbarity, no matter what it’s source, deserves unqualified condemnation.Furthermore, Christian and Islamic faith communities need to promote a respect for human life above all other beliefs and interests and a willingness to acknowledge and to protect more vigorously the right of others to think, to believe and to act differently.

Despite the daily evidence that the violence against religious groups in Iraq continues to escalate, a concerned group of Iraqi Christians in Calgary have brought to my attention that Iraqi Christians are still experiencing a high rate of refusal at our Embassy in Damascus. Considering the current situation in Iraq the possibility, that safety and freedom from religious persecution will prevail in the near future, is highly unlikely. Therefore, Canada should consider accepting a higher number of Iraqi Christians applying as refugees and skilled labour at our embassies throughout the Middle East.

Christians have been labelled as collaborators and traitors working for the American government against Islam. Women, especially, are facing increasing threats, and are being forced to wear the Islamic Hejab even in the most cosmopolitan capital of Baghdad. Christians who can escape are fleeing to neighbouring Syria, Jordan and Turkey.

In view of current events, I am concerned about the response of the Canadian Embassy in Damascus to the plight of Iraqi Christians. According to CIC statistics published on Feb 2, 2004, the acceptance rate for privately sponsored refugees in Damascus in 2003 was only 44%. In contrast, the acceptance rate for Iraqi Christians with similar refugee backgrounds in Ankara was 87%. This is a considerable difference, and it appears to becoming even more pronounced as a recent report from the Canadian Council for Refugees states that the acceptance in Damascus has now dropped to 35% in 2004.

Churches in our Diocese, through the coordination of Calgary Catholic Immigration Society, have submitted fifty-six sponsorships for Iraqi Christians in Syria, Jordan and Turkey from January 2000 to the present. Nine cases have been accepted, six have been refused in Damascus on grounds of eligibility, and thirty-six remain unresolved. We have been informed that a number of our sponsorships for Iraqi Christians in Ankara have been accepted and will arrive in Calgary sometime this fall. We are pleased that our Embassy in Ankara has responded generously to these refugees.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to understand why there is such a notable difference in acceptance rates between our Embassies in Damascus and Ankara. Special concern must be expressed concerned about the low rate of acceptance in Damascus in light of the recent moratorium UNHCR has placed on interviews for Iraqi foreign nationals in Turkey. The moratorium has removed access for refugees to our Embassy in Ankara thus making Damascus the only Canadian office where they can apply.

Citizenship and Immigration Minister Judy Sgro recently outlined her vision for solving many of the long standing problems in Canada’s beleaguered refugee process. Regrettably, the focus seemed to be more on abuse by so called “economic migrants.”

A much better topic would be streamlining and making the refugee determination process more predictable for those fleeing persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group, or whether they need protection because their lives will be in danger if they are returned to their homeland.

At this time greater compassion and a more concerted response from our Embassies are needed and Canada should also bring these concerns to the UNHCR and urge them to reconsider the present moratorium on interviews for Iraqi Christians in Turkey.

So many in our world have no difficulty in personalizing the story of the flight into Egypt and the massacre of the innocents in Mt. 2: 13ff.

☩ Frederick Henry
Bishop Emeritus

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Living Wage

One of the recent gospel readings was Luke’s 11: 42-46. “Woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practised, without neglecting the others.” My morning meditation was not one of those feel good exercises in prayer but it did prompt this column.

I recently wrote an open letter to the Premier as a result of his invitation to engage in public debate over exactly what to do with our budgetary surplus dollars in view of the retirement of our provincial debt.

I argued that investing in economically challenged families would be fiscally responsible and would represent a true Alberta Advantage as this would mean supporting individuals and families in meeting their needs to maintain and a safe and adequate standard of living, to live with dignity, participate meaningfully in society and break through the generational cycle of poverty so that they can achieve their potential.

Reaching one’s potential also takes more than obtaining basic nutrition, shelter, and clothing. It requires enabling families in financial distress to become economically self-sufficient, to thrive and experience life to its fullest with far more joy and far less struggle.

I received several letters and telephone calls of support and a few abusive and angry responses indicating my complete lack of understanding of how the economy works and the root causes of poverty. However, one letter really moved me and I would like to share you the story of Allan.

Allan has been a recipient of Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped since 1993. The maximum AISH payment is $850 per month.

Nevertheless, starting with only two suitcases of clothing, he has slowly improved his situation in life to the point that he now resides in a bachelor suite apartment.

In 1998 he received an inheritance cheque for $1,000 from his mother’s estate and the Government of Alberta clawed back 85%.

Allan “earned” (his term) another $1,927.86, this time from his grandmother’ s estate. Based on the documentation submitted regarding the inheritance in July 2004, he was subsequently informed that he was ineligible for August 2004 benefits and received debt notification from the Government of Alberta requesting the amount of $1,216.32. The covering letter stated: “While you are receiving benefits, a debt payment is deducted from your benefits each month until your debt is repaid. If you stop receiving financial benefits before your debt is repaid, you will be notified of the amount still owing. It is your responsibility to repay this debt.”

Allan’s total income for 2003 was $10,006 with total federal non-refundable-tax credits of $1,240 and total Alberta non-refundable tax credits of $1,352.

In responding to Allan’s plight, Clint Dunford, the Minister of Human Resources and Employment reminded him that “with continued growth to the AISH caseload and the increased costs of medical benefits, it is important to ensure that AISH continues to be available to those who need it most, while balancing accountability to the taxpayer ... Some types of income, such as Good and Services Tax (GST) credit, are fully exempt. Other incomes, such as employment earnings or interest income, are partially exempt. Some income, such as inheritance, is not exempt in the month it is received and must be deducted dollar for dollar.”

The Minister concluded with the reminder of the requirement of people receiving AISH to report changes to their circumstances, including changes to their income or assets.

It wasn’t hard to apply today’s Gospel: “Woe to you...for you load people with burdens hard to bear and you yourselves do not lift a finger to help them.”

In December 2002, 11,235 Calgarians relied on Supports for Independence (SFI), which provide income support and medical benefits; 10,816 Calgarians received Assured Income from the Severely Handicapped allowances. In June of 2002, 23,523 seniors were receiving Guaranteed Income Supplements benefits.

According to the national Council on Welfare (2003), the level of social assistance or welfare payments in Canada guarantee that recipients live below the Low-Income Cutoff levels. In Alberta, a single employable personal requiring social assistance in 2002 received $5,034; this represented only 26% of the LICO. A single person with a disability received $7,601 or 39% of the LICO. For a single parent with one child, Alberta ranked lowest in the country for welfare income as a percentage of LICO, $11,634 or 48% of the LICO.

As poverty increases in Calgary, greater numbers of people are facing economic, health and social barriers to their active participation in society. Growing rates of poverty are cause for concern not only for the health and social consequences for those who are living in poverty, but also because of the broader economic implications for Calgary and Alberta.

Calgary’s appeal as a sound place for businesses to invest is directly related to its ability to attract and retain skilled workers, reduce social service and health expenditures, increase the educational attainment of our youth, reduce crime, and improve the health and well being of all Calgarians. Each of these factors is closely linked with financial security, a key component of which is wages that are high enough to keep workers and their families our of poverty.

The last word belongs to Allan: “I shudder to think that the Alberta Government’s next step will be to monitor the food bank and deduct from “the poor’s” disbursements (welfare, SFI, AISH, etc.) because we didn’t buy the groceries. Where does it end? I know I am not the only person who sees that this legislation is WRONG.”

☩ Frederick Henry
Bishop Emeritus

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