Canadian churches take up cause of five Guantánamo detainees

The churches have applied to help the men – who cannot be safely returned home – resettle as refugees in Canada.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Anwar Hassan, in limbo after seven years of imprisonment at Guantánamo, has a glimmer of hope. A group of churches in Toronto has applied to the Canadian government to sponsor him as a refugee.

One of 17 Chinese Muslims who a military tribunal determined in 2004 were not enemy combatants, Mr. Hassan is still in the prison camp because he could be persecuted if sent back to China, and no other country has stepped forward to accept him. A US appeals court last week overturned a decision that would have released him and his countrymen of the ethnic Uighur minority into the US.

With President Obama deciding to close Guantánamo within a year, Canadian churches are joining a growing international campaign to resolve the cases of 60 men – of a total 240 at the prison – who cannot be returned to their homelands safely.

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As members of the Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR), various Christian denominations have taken up five cases, including those of three Uighurs, an Algerian, and a Kurd from Syria. The Catholic Diocese of Montreal is sponsoring two of the Uighurs, who remain nameless for fear of repercussions against their families in China.

Several Toronto congregations of the United Church of Canada, a Protestant denomination, hope to help Hassan build a new life. "Our commitment is to support him practically and financially for at least a year," says Moira Mancer, a member of the churches' refugee committee.

Last week, CCR called on Canadian immigration to expedite all five cases. "We're hoping the developing political landscape will favor the government giving positive consideration to them," says Janet Dench, CCR's executive director.

CCR worked with the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, which has lawyers representing Guantánamo prisoners, to identify men who meet Canadian criteria: The men must not have charges against them, and they must not be inadmissable because of criminality or posing a security risk.

"They'll be assessed against a fairly stringent criteria," says Alykhan Velshi, spokesman for Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, adding, "Under no circumstances will we be taking steps to expedite the applications."

Not all Canadians are happy about the idea. "Some have heard the Bush administration say these are 'the worst of the worst,'" Ms. Dench says. "There have been hostile comments and hate mail, but also people who are supportive and pleased to see Canadians playing this role."

While some European governments have recently seemed willing to accept Guantánamo detainees, Canada has not yet done so.

Votes of confidence

But those involved in selecting the five detainees are confident of their choices. "These men certainly are no risk to anyone and should be productive members of Canadian society," says J. Wells Dixon, an attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights. "I'd encourage [immigration officials] to travel to Guantánamo if given the option.... It would allay any concerns."

Hassan had fled China for Afghanistan after being imprisoned for his religious practice, and was living in an Uighur community at the time of the 2001 US invasion. To escape the bombing, the Uighurs fled to Pakistan, where they say they were picked up by Pakistani police and sold to the US for bounty. The Algerian and the Syrian Kurd also say they were sold for bounty.

Participating Canadian churches all have experience supporting refugees who've come out of traumatic situations. Still, Trinity St. Paul's United Church in Toronto held lengthy congregational discussions before voting to move forward. Trinity has applied to sponsor Maasoum Abdah Mouhammad, the Syrian Kurd.

"We wanted to go into this with our eyes wide open," says church member Sonya Wu-Winter. "At the heart of this is offering ourselves as a community of welcome. The material things are critical, but the core of friendship you can't live your life without."

Ultimately, "there was very strong support in the congregation for this effort," Ms. Wu-Winter adds.

It helps that Canada has large Kurdish and Uighur communities, which the churches can draw upon.

The Anglican Diocese of Montreal has applied to sponsor Djamel Ameziane, an ethnic Berber from Algeria who fled persecution during his country's civil war 16 years ago. Mr. Ameziane's lawyers allege he was brutalized during interrogations at Guantánamo and kept in solitary confinement for over a year. He has never had a judicial review of his case.

"We feel he's been wrongfully detained, and he has never been accused of anything," says Glynis Williams, a pastor who directs Montreal's Anglican-Presbyterian refugee ministry.

Support for a new life

As for Hassan, the sponsorship application was filed last May, and the Toronto church committee – known as Don Valley Refugee Resettlers – hopes the change in US administration will speed up action.

Once a visa has been granted, the committee will locate an apartment, ask their congregations to supply the furnishings, plan an ethnic meal, and meet him at the airport, Ms. Mancer says. They'll then help sort out the health and social insurance forms, orient him to community resources and language classes, and set up a bank account.

Each church makes an annual donation and holds fundraisers. Once the committee feels refugees are stable, "we transfer into their account the money they need for rent and expenses, and check in on how they are handling it and saving," Mancer says. They help those who know English find part-time work. Immigration pays the airfare into Canada, but refugees have to repay it.

Church members aren't worried about any psychological problems, they say – most of the refugees they've helped have come out of extreme situations.

Mr. Dixon, who has talked with some detainees, concurs. "In general, these men have faced persecution most of their lives. A lot ended up in Afghanistan because they faced persecution elsewhere," he says. "At this point, they would be happy to settle anywhere where they can be safe, work, have a family, and lead a quiet life."

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