Shaarei-Beth El Congregation in Oakville, Ont., is joining forces with local Christians and Muslims to sponsor a family of seven who fled war in Syria and are living in Jordan.
Rabbi Stephen Wise said the partnership is unprecedented in Canada and is a moral response to a crisis situation.
“We know this is an immense task, but we cannot stand by and do nothing,” he said.
“All three faiths know it is our obligation to help the needy, one family at a time. We felt this was a unique situation, that [we all] sponsor refugees. We feel this would set an example for other partnerships like this. These are people who need help. It doesn’t matter what ethnicity or religion they are.”
Rabbi Wise was planning to make a pitch for his congregation’s support during the first day of Rosh Hashanah. The three faith groups have agreed to raise more than $30,000 to support the family once they’re in Canada. One of them, Maple Grove United Church, is preparing the paperwork to facilitate the family’s emigration. The other participant is Canadians in Support of Refugees in Dire Need (CSRDN).
Sandra Onufryk, chair of the church’s outreach committee, said the United Church is a sponsorship agreement holder, allowing it to bring refugees to Canada who have been approved by federal authorities. It could take as long as 17 months before the family arrives. The vetting process is extensive, including medical, criminal and terrorist checks, she said, adding the process could be expedited.
Onufryk said the idea for a partnership originated with Aliya Khan, co-founder of CSRDN, and Rev. Morar Murray-Hayes, the presiding minister at Maple Grove. They thought it would “show the world that the three Abrahamic religions could work together in a constructive way,” she said.
In meetings with refugee advocacy groups at the ISNA Canada (Islamic Society of North America) mosque in Mississauga, which will host a rally for Syrian refugees Oct. 25, Onufryk learned of the Syrian family now living in Jordan. The family has relatives in Canada who asked for help in bringing them over.
Onufryk said getting Muslims, Christians and Jews to co-operate to help the family “shows that the three faith groups, which had conflict in the past, can work together in Canada to help needy people.”
Their partnership has prompted inquiries from others, she added. Representatives of two Catholic churches called on her for more information within a 24-hour span last week, as has a citizens group, which can also sponsor refugees, she said.
Several Toronto shuls are also taking steps separately to support refugee families, including Beth Tikvah Congregation, City Shul and Congregation Darchei Noam.
Despite statements of co-operation between CSRDN, Maple Grove Church and Shaarei-Beth El, an issue cropped up that gave the church and synagogue pause before agreeing to participate in the rally at the ISNA Canada mosque. South of the border in 2007, ISNA was named an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land Foundation case after being linked to efforts to funnel money to Hamas.
In addition, two years ago the Canada Revenue Agency removed the charitable status of ISNA Development Foundation, saying, “The government of Canada… will not tolerate the abuse of the registration system for charities to provide any means of support to terrorism.”
Rabbi Wise acknowledged ISNA’s U.S. link. “It’s a tricky one,” he said. “We might not agree with ISNA on everything. I wouldn’t partner with organizations that call for the destruction of Israel and support terrorism.”
But he knew Khan from their joint participation in the Interfaith Council of Halton. “I feel this kind of issue, helping refugees, can bring us together, rather than drive us apart. This type of partnership can lead to a better relationship and understanding,” he said.
Onufryk said she, too, was “concerned” about the ISNA connection and discussed it with her church colleagues. “We decided the needs of the family in Jordan were… greater than our concerns.”
Asked about the mosque’s ties to ISNA in the United States, Khan said Canadians in Support of Refugees in Dire Need (CSRDN) is the sponsoring group. “CSRDN is a Muslim organization with multifaith representation. “We meet at ISNA,” she said.