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Muslim conscientious objector allowed to stay in Canada

Bill Janzen
January 24, 2008

OTTAWA, Ont. -- Can a Muslim be a conscientious objector? Erkan (his first name) says yes. And in mid December he learned that his application for permission to stay in Canada, on humanitarian and compassionate grounds, was approved.

Erkan grew up in Turkey where military service is compulsory, and conscientious objection and alternative service are not allowed. Instead, people who claim to be conscientious objectors are usually sent to prison, some on a repeated basis. Some have been tortured. And when not in prison, they are still deprived of significant rights.

To avoid this fate Erkan, who is single, came to Canada in 2001 and applied for refugee status. However, the federal government’s Immigration and Refugee Board refused him, as did the courts, stating that prosecution under a conscription law, which is of general application, is not persecution. Fortunately, his application on humanitarian grounds was successful.

But how did Erkan, a Muslim, become a conscientious objector? While in high school and university in Turkey, he learned of the Hizmet movement and of Said Nursi (who died in 1960) and Fethullah Gulen, two spiritual leaders who called on people to become more devout, more humble, more reliant on God, and more peaceful, recognizing the common humanity of all people, says Erkan.

But Turkish authorities, committed to building a secular society, became suspicious of these groups and took actions against them. To avoid trouble, Erkan went to the U.S. where he enrolled in John Brown University (JBU), an inter-denominational Christian university in Arkansas. There, many of his friends were Mennonites. A roommate, Frank Huebert, was a particularly helpful dialogue partner. (Huebert went on to serve as a Mennonite Brethren youth pastor for five years before returning to JBU as a staff member.)

It was from these Mennonites that Erkan first learned about conscientious objection but the idea resonated deeply with him. He felt it was in harmony with the particular Muslim teachings that had so influenced him in Turkey. He also developed a new appreciation for teachings that appear in some Islam sources that: “It is better to be killed than to kill,” and, “To kill one person is like killing the whole of humanity.”

While enjoying his studies at JBU, including courses on Christianity, he wrote several critical articles about the human rights situation in Turkey. That brought him to the attention of an ultra-nationalist Turkish group active in the U.S. After some threats and harassment, he consulted a lawyer and came to Canada and applied for refugee status.

The journey from that first application in May 2001 until the favourable ruling late in 2007 was difficult at times. Legal Aid lawyers proved very helpful. And the MCC Ottawa Office, since learning of Erkan in 2006, also helped, with letters to the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration and in other ways.

In a December 6 appearance before the Parliamentary Committee on Citizenship and Immigration an MCC representative acknowledged that Mennonites had benefited enormously from Canada’s generous conscientious objector provisions and asked that people in situations like Erkan’s be admitted on that basis.

Erkan currently lives and works in Ottawa and plans to go back to university when he can afford to do so.

Bill Janzen is director of the MCC Ottawa office.