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OTTAWA — Privately sponsored refugees were exempted from the Conservative government’s security audit of the Syrian refugee resettlement program, raising questions about whether it’s because most probably aren’t Muslim.

The Conservative government ordered a review of some Syrian refugee cases this summer as a result of intelligence reports suggesting refugees could pose a threat.

“Our government has adopted a generous approach to the admission of refugees while ensuring the selection of the most vulnerable people and keeping our country safe and secure,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said during a campaign stop in Vancouver Thursday after news of the review surfaced. 

“The audit we asked for earlier this year was to ensure that these policy objectives are being met.”

Of the 11,300 Syrian refugees the government has committed to resettling since the start of the Syrian war, the vast majority are being resettled by private groups, mostly churches. 

But the June audit was carried out only on government-assisted refugee cases, including those already in Canada and those still in the queue, forcing a halt to processing those files for several weeks.

“The processing of privately sponsored refugees continued throughout this period,” said Chris Day, a spokesman for Immigration Minister Chris Alexander.

Only UN-referred refugee files were audited as the government knows less about those cases when they arrive for processing than they do about refugees being brought to Canada by private groups, said a government source speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the system.

U.S. security officials have raised concerns in recent weeks about the potential for Islamic militants to be among the millions of people pouring out of Iraq and Syria and seeking asylum around the world. Existing intelligence on the ground in Syria in particular makes identifying those people a challenge.

All refugees undergo security and medical checks before being approved for a visa to enter Canada; the difference between a government-assisted refugee and a privately sponsored one is how they are selected.

The government program admits only people chosen by the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees. The UNHCR would not comment on the security review of their cases.

They assign files to Canada based on a specific set of criteria that does not include the Conservative government’s stated preference for religious minorities from the region.

An estimated 90 per cent of refugees in the region identify as Muslim so it’s likely the majority of the people referred to Canada by the UN are Muslim as well, though hard numbers aren’t available.

Meanwhile, two-thirds of the private groups approved by the government to resettle refugees are churches. They have more flexibility to select who they want — and in turn, the government has more flexibility to approve or reject those applications.

That’s the reason the government isn’t worried about those files, suggested Faisal Alazem, a spokesman for the Syrian Canadian Council.

“They know that through the churches, it’ll be Christians or minorities to come,” he said.

There are no statistics available on the actual religious make-up of Canada’s refugee population, nor whether churches do typically tend to select Christians or other particular minorities.

While the majority of Muslims in the region are Sunni, there are Muslim minority groups as well.

“Refugee sponsorship should be on humanitarian grounds and not be affected by politics,” said Alexandra Kotyk, the project manager for Lifeline Syria, a Toronto-based initiative to resettle 1,000 Syrians in that city over the next two years.

Harper rejected a report that his political staff were involved in the refugee selection process.

“Political staff are never involved in approving refugee applications,” he said. “Such decisions are made by officials in the department of Citizenship and Immigration.”

The review included cases being handled by two non-governmental organizations who assist the government in refugee resettlement: the Danish Refugee Council and the Aga Khan Foundation. No issues were uncovered.

But the review itself may be the reason that only 287 government assisted refugee files were closed between January and August of this year, compared to 1,513 privately sponsored refugees.

— with files from Lina Dib

Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press

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