Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion has apologized to Alison Azer – the mother of four children abducted by their Iranian-Kurdish father – for making a thumbs-down gesture when her case was raised in the House of Commons on Thursday.
"I am sorry that some interpreted it to be directed at Madame Azer. It was obviously not the case," Mr. Dion told the Commons on Friday. "I have nothing but compassion for Madame Azer and I cannot imagine the anguish she must be going through."
But he insisted that Conservative MPs have tried to politicize Ms. Azer's plight, which he said "was not helpful to Madame Azer and her children." He urged the Opposition to back off its public calls for the government to take a more forceful stand in trying to persuade Iran to return the children to Canada.
Mr. Dion lost his cool in the Commons on Thursday and began heckling and gave a thumbs-down when Conservative MP Michael Cooper complained about the lack of progress in Ms. Azer's case.
Ms. Azer, who met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in May to discuss her missing children, was watching in the visitors' gallery and later broke down in tears when she spoke to reporters, saying she had never felt so "dishonoured and disrespected."
On Thursday, Mr. Dion refused to apologize when pressed by Conservative MP Ed Fast, who called the thumbs-down gesture "offensive." The minister said he stood by his behaviour.
Mr. Dion had a change of heart after discussions with his senior staff, sources say.
B.C. NDP MP Gord Johns said he spoke to Ms. Azer, who lives in Comox, B.C. and "she told me that she accepts the apology from the minister."
Mr. Johns took exception to Mr. Dion saying that it was unwise for the Conservatives to publicly raise the issue of the four abducted children in Parliament, noting the Liberals did the same thing when they were in opposition in the case of Egyptian-Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy, when he was jailed in Cairo last year.
"The Liberals fought hard on consular issues and it resulted in the safe return, of [Mr. Fahmy] when he was in Egypt, and we're doing the same thing. We're doing the right thing by making sure that this is an important file and the government understands that," he said.
In Toronto on Friday, Mr. Trudeau said he cannot image the suffering Ms. Azer is going through and promised that his government is doing everything it can to have her children returned safely from northern Iran, where they have been living with their father, a medical doctor.
"This is an issue that touches all Canadians. And I myself am emotionally impacted, as we all are, by the plight of Alison Azer and her children," he told reporters. "It is something that this government takes extremely seriously."
However, Mr. Trudeau said the case has proved more difficult because of the former Conservative government's decision to sever diplomatic relations with Iran and close the Canadian embassy in Tehran. This has resulted in Canada having to seek the help of other Western diplomats in Iran.
A senior government official told The Globe and Mail that efforts to get Iran to return the children – aged 4 to 12 – has involved a "delicate dance," and that public criticism of the government by Ms. Azer and the opposition parties has not been helpful.
Ms. Azer's agony began last year when RCMP officers arrived at her door in Comox, B.C., to say her children had not boarded their return flight from a vacation with their father in Europe.
Her 11-year marriage to Saren Azer had dissolved bitterly in 2012 after she said he threatened to kill her and the children.
During a vacation, Dr. Azer, who came to Canada as refugee in the 1990s, had taken the children to northern Iraq and then Iran.
In June, Iranian officials, acting on an Interpol Red Notice requested by Canada, detained Dr. Azer on four charges of child abduction, but later dropped the charges. Ms. Azer said Canadian officials have bungled the case, a charge denied by the government.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Mr. Johns was a Conservative MP. He is a New Democrat MP.