In wake of U.S. cuts, primate calls on Ottawa to boost funding for Palestinian refugees

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Eight-year-old Sawsan (right) plays with a friend near the tin-roofed shack he shares with his family of 11 in Gaza. Like many other families in the Gaza Strip, where unemployment is high, his family depends on humanitarian aid to survive. Photo: Eyad El Baba/UNICEF

Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, is asking the federal government to step up its support for Palestinian refugees after a recent decision by the United States to slash its funding to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

In an open letter to Minister for International Development and the Francophonie Marie-Claude Bibeau, dated February 9, Hiltz called on Ottawa to increase its funding to UNRWA, a body established to help Palestinian refugees from the conflict that followed the founding of Israel in 1948. The additional funding would be necessary, he said, to ensure 700 schools and 137 clinics overseen by the agency in the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem would continue operating through 2018.

The diocese includes Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Israel.

Hiltz said he was making his appeal as a result of a decision by the United States to reduce its annual funding to the agency from $350 million in 2017 to $60 million this year.

Hiltz said the Anglican Church of Canada was “deeply concerned” about what the U.S. decision would mean for Palestinian refugees in the region.

Providing humanitarian aid to Palestinians is a priority of the Anglican Church of Canada, the primate said, manifested especially in its partnership with the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem and its hospitals in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.

“We write to urge Canada to step forward to provide global leadership and action,” the primate said.

Canada could frontload its contribution and increase its funding to UNRWA for 2018, Hiltz said. It could also work with UNRWA in building new funding alliances and initiatives, he said.

The reduction in U.S. funding, Hiltz said, would directly affect the availability of treatments, medical supplies, electricity, food and wages to Palestinians.

“As Chair of the G7, Canada has an opportunity to raise greater awareness that health and education are the building-blocks for sound development and eventual peace and stability,” Hiltz said. “For this to be truly effective in the long-term, efforts to secure a just and lasting peace in the region are urgently needed.”

UNRWA commissioner-general Pierre Krähenbühl has said the cuts threaten key services like education, health care and food assistance for Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Reduced U.S. contribution “also impacts regional security at a time when the Middle East faces multiple risks and threats, notably that of further radicalization,” said Krähenbühl in a statement released January 17, the day the U.S. decision was announced.

“Since UNRWA began its operations in May 1950, every U.S. administration—from President Truman onwards—has stood with and provided strong, generous and committed support to our Agency,” Krähenbühl said. “Given the long, trusted, and historic relationship between the United States and UNRWA, this reduced contribution threatens one of the most successful and innovative human development endeavors in the Middle-East.”

Krähenbühl called on people around the world to help UNRWA in responding to the crisis. On January 22, UNRWA launched an emergency global fundraising campaign #DignityIsPriceless, which aims to raise $500 million.

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Tali Folkins
Tali Folkins has worked as a staff reporter for the Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail and The United Church Observer.

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