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US war resister first to take sanctuary in Canada after being ordered deported

VANCOUVER - An American soldier who deserted the Iraq war has taken sanctuary at a church in Vancouver after being ordered deported.

Rodney Watson, 31, said he is the first of at least 40 U.S. war resisters to take refuge in a church after fleeing to Canada. Watson has been living at a United church since Sept. 18. He said the Canadian government ordered his deportation on Sept. 11, when he was told to voluntarily turn himself in at a U.S. border crossing.

Watson, who fled to Canada in 2006, said he feared he'd be imprisoned for a year if he turned himself in, adding that's been the case for other war deserters who decided to return home.

"Also, I don't feel I should be punished for my conscientious objection to this Iraq war when we have people walking around freely when they lied to the public about weapons of mass destruction."

Watson, who is from Kansas City, Kan., is also fighting a custody battle involving his 10-month-old son and doesn't want to leave Canada in the midst of that. He said his son is in foster care, but declined to discuss the matter.

Watson, who is African American, said he came to Canada after refusing to be deployed to Iraq for a second tour of duty because of racism he witnessed by American soldiers against Iraqi civilians.

"I've seen a lot of U.S. soldiers, all white, who are racist at heart and they took it over there and I saw it," he said. "I witnessed them beating on Iraqi civilians, even civilian contractors who had nothing to do with the war."

Watson said he was ordered deported before a ruling on his application to stay in Canada on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.

He said he wants Canadians to support his stand against the Iraq war and his effort to stay here.

"The whole world is pretty much against this Iraq war," he said. "It was found out there were no weapons of mass destruction."

Two majority votes in Parliament have called on Canada to stop the deportation of war resisters.

"It's time for the people to raise their voices and let themselves be heard," Watson said.

Watson initially planned to flee to Mexico but said he decided to come to Vancouver after watching a TV show that included highlights about the city's relatively warm climate and natural beauty.

Ric Matthews, lead minister of First United Church in Vancouver, said the board and the congregation support Watson.

Matthews said he met Watson at a rally organized on his behalf by the War Resisters Support Campaign and that Watson later approached him about staying at the church.

"There will be an effort to try and help create the momentum for something constructive to come out of this," he said.

"I think the United Church in general, beyond just us, would now be working through some of our people who have experience in working with refugee claims and in engaging with government in conversation."

Matthews said Watson's fiancee and son often visit him at the church, which provides daily meals for people in need.

Sarah Bjorknas, spokeswoman for the War Resisters Support Campaign, said there are at least 40 American war deserters living in Canada, many in the Toronto area.

The group has existed since 2004 to provide assistance to members of the U.S. military who are seeking refuge in Canada.

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