Members of Mill Bay Baptist Fellowship Church are appealing a decision by Immigration Canada to turn down an application to bring a threatened Christian Pakistani family to the Cowichan Valley.
Speaking on behalf of the church, Pastor Norm Sowden said he and everyone else who had worked so hard to get the five-member Azhar family to Canada for the past two years are very disappointed in Immigration Canada’s rejection of the family’s application to emigrate here, and have hired a lawyer to appeal the decision. The family has been living in Thailand for years after fleeing religious persecution in Pakistan.
He said the lawyer has put together an informative appeal which highlights the lack of “risk assessment” done by the immigration officer in assessing the family’s case.
“Apparently, it is quite common that immigration officers reject applications like this on the basis that the family can pick another part of Pakistan to return to and live in,” Sowden said.
“However, even a slight bit of research shows how off base that idea is.”
The Azhar family was forced to flee their native Pakistan a number of years ago because they hid pastor Sarfraz Sagar, the religious leader at that country’s Lighthouse Pentecostal Church, which they attended, in their home due to fear for Sagar’s life from Muslim militants.
The pastor was able to flee to Thailand before being captured by the group, but when Azhar Javed, the family’s father, became aware that he and his family had also been targeted by the militant group for hiding Sagar, the family fled to Thailand as well before they were captured.
But their visitor’s visa eventually expired and Azhar had been detained by Thai authorities for more than three years in Bangkok’s decrepit and overcrowded immigration detention centres before finally being recently freed after the Mill Bay church and another church in Pakistan raised money for bail.
The family’s situation in Pakistan is becoming increasingly desperate as Azhar is not officially permitted to work there, and he has to take odd jobs when available to keep the family fed.
They also must keep moving around out of fear of being arrested and/or deported back to Pakistan.
Snowden said Immigration Canada’s contention that the family can return to Pakistan and live safely in another region of the country is not realistic.
He said the militant group that they fled from personally named Sarfraz, who has since emigrated to Canada with his family and now lives in Duncan, and Azhar and accuses them of blasphemy and demands their arrest and punishment, which could mean death or more than 20 years in prison.
“It’s not widely known, but thousands of Christians, Shia Muslims, Ahmadis Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs face great persecution in Pakistan, and many are fleeing the country,” he said.
“The majority of Pakistanis are Sunni Muslims of whom many are now attaching themselves to groups affiliated with ISIS or the Taliban.”
Sowden said the Mill Bay Baptist Fellowship Church is currently working on applications for three other families from the region facing religious persecution to come to Canada, and have been joined by the Oasis Church and Duncan Pentecostal Church who are each applying for a family.
He said there are another eight families desperately looking for help and his church is seeking sponsors for them.
Sowden said his church is facing a very large legal bill, suspected to be in the range of $11,000, to appeal the decision to deny the Azhar family’s application to come to Canada.
He said the church intends to hold fundraisers to help raise the money needed, beginning with a flea market and barbecue on May 7.
“Anyone who would like to set up a table for selling crafts or stuff are welcome,” Sowden said.
For more information, call 250-929-1003.