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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 Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 23, 2009

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.

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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.

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.

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