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Immigration Minister Joe Volpe faced a barrage of criticism in the House of Commons yesterday over the case of two prominent Syrian women who received Canadian visitor's visas to allow them to deliver their babies in Canada.

"Why did the government abuse our immigration system to give backdoor-citizenship opportunities to Syrian members of a foreign dictatorship?" asked Conservative immigration critic Diane Ablonczy, one of three MPs who attacked the government on the issue in Question Period yesterday.

The two Syrian women, the daughter-in law and daughter of General Bahjat Suleiman, received the visas in early May. One of the women, Zeina Khair, has already had her baby and returned to Syria. Sources say the other, Randala Suleiman, holds a valid visa and plans to travel to Canada this summer to give birth.

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Sources say it is relatively common for the families of highly placed Syrian officials to give birth in Canada, thus conferring Canadian citizenship on the children.

A Canadian passport is deemed a desirable asset by the Syrian elite both because of the relatively low-cost postsecondary education it offers, as well as security against any future regime change in Syria.

Bloc Québécois MP Roger Clavet led the attack, accusing the government of effectively extending Canadian citizenship to the grandchildren of a Syrian general while other, worthier applicants are rejected.

Mr. Volpe said he couldn't discuss individual cases and, therefore, couldn't comment.

B.C. Tory MP Nina Grewal also blasted Mr. Volpe about the visas. "This unacceptable backdoor practice must stop and the visa that has been issued to the general's daughter must be revoked," she said.

On Friday, The Globe and Mail reported that Gen. Suleiman's daughter and daughter-in-law had received six-month visitor visas from the Canadian embassy in Damascus. Both women have given birth in Canada once before.

Ms. Khair's husband and Gen. Suleiman's son, Majed Suleiman, has extensive media interests and is socially acquainted with the Canadian ambassador to Damascus, Brian Davis.

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Speaking through a spokesman last week, Mr. Davis categorically denied having had any personal involvement in issuing the visas. Mr. Volpe's office has likewise denied any foreknowledge of the case.

Until earlier this month Gen. Suleiman was head of Syrian internal intelligence and as such was responsible for repressing the media and keeping intellectuals in line. He is believed to have lost his job because of his support for the strategically disastrous assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in February.

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