Helps immigrant Christians from South Asian countries escape religious persecution

Susan Korah: Canorient Christian Association marks 50 years in CanadaWhile united in faith, Canadian Catholics reflect the diversity of the nation. And Catholics who trace their roots to the South Asian sub-continent enrich the cultural mosaic of the Canadian Catholic population of nearly 11 million (2021 census) while benefiting from the freedom to practise their religion in safety and peace.

As Canorient Christian Association of Toronto – a Catholic organization founded by a group of volunteers from Goa, the former Portuguese colony within India – celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, Senator Andrew Cardozo, the first parliamentarian of Goan origin, helped kick off the festivities by presenting its executive to the Senate and highlighting its accomplishments.

“Canorient is active in helping Christians escape religious persecution in Pakistan and settle in Canada. Members of the community have played important roles in Canadian national life, including at the Bank of Canada, as candidates for all major parties, and as journalists. I am proud to be the first parliamentarian of Goan origin,” Cardozo said as he introduced the delegation in the Red Chamber.

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“It is important to recognize community organizations that address important issues and pay homage to their work,” Cardozo said. “Canorient helps to settle newcomers to Canada, foster in them a sense of belonging and show them how to operate in Canada. They also have a vibrant seniors’ club which includes some of the founders of the organization, who come together in sad and happy times.”

About his own roots in Goa – which was a Portuguese enclave and colony within India from 1510 to 1961 – Cardozo said Catholicism was brought to this part of the world by St. Francis Xavier in the 16th century and that Goa is the final resting place of the missionary saint, one of St. Ignatius Loyola’s closest friends and co-founder of the Jesuit congregation.

Over the years, people from Goa migrated to other parts of the South Asian sub-continent, as in the case of Cardozo’s own family, which moved to Pakistan before immigrating to Canada.

“Religion is a major part of identity for our people, who are often very involved in their churches, and they even have annual picnics for people from their original parishes back home,” he said, adding that people in the community, though scattered in diasporas all over the world, tend to be active in their churches, which they regard as their religious and cultural hub.

Explaining that the organization has signed an agreement with the Department of Immigration, Cardozo said they have taken on the responsibility to help immigrant Christians fleeing persecution in Pakistan to settle in Canada. He noted that India, a Hindu-majority country, is also becoming a place of persecution and discrimination against Christians.

“The Hindu religion itself is beautiful, but when it becomes a political ideology to exclude minorities, it’s not a healthy thing,” he said.

Florence Suares, president of Canorient, emphasized that although its founding members trace their roots to Goa, the organization serves people from all the countries of the South Asian sub-continent, including India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Reflecting on her own move to Canada and its impact on her religious life, Suares said: “My family and I came to Canada through a Canorient program. I was brought up in Sri Lanka but had an aunt, a nun, in Pakistan, who helped us migrate to Pakistan.”

But in Karachi, Pakistan, which had a vibrant Christian community, they were not allowed to be themselves and practise their religion and culture freely.

The move to Canada was like a breath of fresh air for Suares and others who immigrated here from various South Asian countries.

“The immigrants who came through Canorient’s programs settle well and give back to Canada,” said Suares.

Angela Menezes, Canorient Christian Association’s past president, is another beneficiary of Canorient’s immigration program.

She explained that Canorient helps potential immigrants with visas and also undertakes to support each new family financially for a year after arrival. She and her family moved to Canada from Pakistan, which became radicalized and intolerant of religious minorities in the 1970s.

“I visited Pakistan last year and was sad to see churches like St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Karachi with barricades and security guards around them,” she added.

The rise of religious fundamentalism and intolerance of minorities has been documented by Farahnaz Ispahani, a former Pakistan parliamentarian and journalist who is now a fellow at the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington.

“In recent years, Pakistan has witnessed some of the worst organized violence against religious minorities since partition. Over an 18-month period covering 2012 and part of 2013, at least 200 incidents of sectarian violence were reported; these incidents led to some 1,800 casualties, including more than 700 deaths,” she wrote in her 2015 book Purifying the Land of the Pure: Pakistan’s Religious Minorities.

“About 60 percent of our members are of Goan origin, and the rest are from other South Asian countries,” Menezes said, adding that all are well-integrated Canadians and doing well for themselves.

The Canorient Christian Association plans to mark its 50th anniversary with a series of special events.

“Our 50th anniversary is a huge milestone,” Suares said. “We are celebrating as a community and have events planned throughout the year. On Aug. 10 we will have an all-parish picnic for 1,200 to 1,500 people at a park in Woodbridge, Ont. We will be inviting Francesco Sorbara, MP for Vaughan-Woodbridge and other dignitaries to it.”

Another marquee event the organizing committee plans is a gala at the Pearson Convention Centre in Brampton on Sept. 21.

Susan Korah is Ottawa correspondent for The Catholic Register,  a Troy Media Editorial Content Provider Partner.

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