VANCOUVER — A group from a British Columbia church that had been touring historical sites in Israel when Hamas fighters began killing civilians is struggling to find a way home with the confusion of the war and a lack of support from the Canadian government.
Paul Olson, an executive pastor at the SouthRidge Fellowship Church in Langley, said he woke Saturday to a ton of messages from church members on the tour saying they were safe.
After listening to the news, Olson said he was worried, but was able to contact Brent Chapman, the pastor who was leading the group of 25 on a tour in Masada, an ancient fortress in the southern Israel.
But the next dilemma was how to get them out, he said.
“When it happened at the weekend, there was no support whatsoever from the Canadian Consulate. There was no support from Air Canada, they had no idea what they were supposed to do,” said Olson. “And the Canadian government didn’t help at all.”
By Monday, the Canadian government had issued notices telling people to stay away from the Gaza Strip and southern Israel, but Olson said the group was still feeling “cut off.”
“They weren’t saying: Hey, here’s where you need to go. Here’s what you need to do,” added Olson.
In the days since Hamas launched bombs and sent gunmen over the Israeli border, more than 2,500 people have been killed on both sides.
Olson said their tour group first moved to northern Israel to get clear of the fighting and then form a plan to get home safely.
He said they eventually made it to the neighbouring country of Jordan, hoping that they might find a flight from there.
Olson said they tried to reach out to the government, but the office was closed due to the Thanksgiving holiday and when the office finally opened on Monday, their phone calls still weren’t answered.
“So, it was really not very helpful,” said Olson. “It was really disappointing.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday that a Royal Canadian Air Force plane that left Tel Aviv with 130 people on board has landed in Athens.
Olson said the group is aware that the Canadian government is airlifting people out of Israel, butthe group doesn’t want to return to Israel to catch a flight home.
“But they have not heard from the Canadian government at least at this point,” he said.
He said they are uncertain if they’ll get on an Air Canada flight.
“It’s not a simple venture to get everybody out, right? And we’re not just going to send one or two at a time. We’re trying to get them all out at the same time.”
The SouthRidge Fellowship Church has been organizing trips to Israel every five years to explore the historical sites while learning where Jesus walked and born, he said.
As of Thursday, there were more than 5,685 Canadians registered in Israel and 465 Canadians registeredin the West Bank and Gaza. Global Affairs Canada has responded to 2,793 inquiries since the beginning of the conflict on Oct. 7.
— With files from The Associated Press
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 12, 2023.
The Canadian Press