November 21, 2015 12:00AM
November 21, 2015 12:00AM
|Archbishop Anthony Fisher: ‘Groups like the Yazidis, Christians and Zoroastrians are at peril of extinction in the Middle East at the hands of Daesh.’|
The Turnbull government’s plan to take a majority of the 12,000 extra Syrian refugees from persecuted Christian groups and other religious minorities in the Middle East is in danger of being derailed.
Christian leaders fear they are being blocked from recommending persecuted people to be part of the Australian intake because of confusion over the Immigration Department’s selection process and the selection rules of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
Government sources believe drafting of the September 9 decision has undermined the clear intention of cabinet, which was to concentrate on the most persecuted groups who could not return to their homes in Syria. These included Christians, Yazidis and Jews, who would form the bulk of the extra refugees accepted.
A requirement included in the decision — that the UNHCR had to register the refugees — meant those who are displaced in Syria or living in tents or with family members outside the official UN camps were not registered.
The Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, who has written to Malcolm Turnbull about the issue, expressed concern yesterday that the bulk of the refugees would be Muslims rather than the persecuted non-Muslim groups the government indicated in September, such as Christians, Yazidis, Zoroastrians and Jews.
“The community and the Oriental Christians are feeling very anxious and can’t get clarity on what the Australian government is trying to achieve,” Archbishop Fisher told The Weekend Australian last night.
The Archbishop said Islamic State, also known as Daesh, wanted to “exterminate or enslave” Christians as part of its belief in the terrorist Caliphate.
“Groups like the Yazidis, Christians and Zoroastrians are at peril of extinction in the Middle East at the hands of Daesh,” Archbishop Fisher said.
Church concerns about the Australian intake emerged as the US House of Representatives voted to suspend a program giving Syrian refugees safe haven in the US, a move Democrats slammed as giving in to xenophobia after the Paris attacks. The vote yesterday on the Republican legislation, which seeks to impose more stringent security provisions on screening of Iraqi and Syrian refugees, easily had the required support to pass. The bill now heads to the Senate, where its fate is uncertain.
Archbishop Fisher said there were mixed messages coming from the federal government and the Immigration Department, which put in doubt the government’s initial request at a meeting on September 9 for all the churches to nominate refugees who were persecuted and “ready for family reunion or quick integration into Australian society”.
The Immigration Department has received several thousand applications and a handful of families, including Muslims and Christians, have already arrived in Australia.
In the wake of the latest Islamic State terror attacks in Paris, including attackers who flowed in to France with Syrian refugees, there have been public calls to stop the intake completely or limit it to Christians.
Concern among Christian groups, particularly the Oriental Christian churches, which include the Copts, Melkites, Antiochian Orthodox, Maronite and Assyrians, has spiked as evidence flows from the US that the UNHCR will not give Christians priority, and has indicated a majority of the refugees going to the US will be Muslim.
Eastern Christian Welfare Australia, which represents 12 churches and is trying to identify genuine refugees, said last night it believed the current system was failing to target “vulnerable minorities who cannot obtain UNHCR registration; who do not live in refugee camps; and who do not have immediate family members to propose them”.
In a statement to The Weekend Australian, the welfare group said Christians were afraid to go to the official refugee camps because they were predominantly filled with Muslims and had also been infiltrated by the terror fighters.
“Vulnerable Christian and minority refugees who are not registered with the UNHCR or who do not have immediate family members in Australia are caught up in the bureaucracy,” the statement said.
“We believe a new visa subclass is needed to cater for minority applicants, as the current humanitarian visas fail to do this.”
The requirement for refugees to be registered with UNHCR is causing concern. There is a strong view within church groups that the government should use the Special Humanitarian Program, which has previously been used to relocate Copts from Egypt, more widely.
Scott Morrison, who was immigration minister before being appointed Treasurer, said this week Christians would make up a “very large component” of the 12,000 refugee intake in response to reports of 25 US states moving to stop all Syrian refugees being accepted.
“We are focusing on those persecuted minorities and that obviously includes a very large Christian component — in fact the majority, I would expect,” Mr Morrison said.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, who has visited Jordan and Lebanon in recent weeks and this week welcomed the first Sunni Muslim family to Australia from the Syrian intake, said the government would not discriminate and was concentrating on taking women, children, persecuted groups and families.
A spokesman for Mr Dutton said the Immigration Minister had made it clear Australia would take refugees not only from the UNHCR program but also under the Special Humanitarian Program. He has previously said the Australian government will not be told by the UNHCR who to take, and Australia will make the decision on who is accepted.