Under President Donald Trump’s new executive order, religious minorities claiming persecution will take priority over other applicants once the refugee program resumes.
Last weekend on the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), Trump indicated that the policy will particularly advantage persecuted Christians from the Middle East:
They’ve been horribly treated. Do you know if you were a Christian in Syria it was impossible, at least very tough to get into the United States? If you were a Muslim you could come in, but if you were a Christian, it was almost impossible and the reason that was so unfair, everybody was persecuted in all fairness, but they were chopping off the heads of everybody but more so the Christians. And I thought it was very, very unfair. So we are going to help them.
Since 2011, between 1 and 3 percent of Syrian refugees admitted to the US were Christians, while the proportion of Christian refugees from the country is estimated to be much larger. (CT previously looked at explanations for the disparity.) Overall, 1 in 4 refugees resettled from the seven Muslim-majority nations now restricted under Trump’s order were Christians.
While some evangelicals agree with Trump’s efforts to course-correct on behalf of persecuted brothers and sisters, many others worry about the ramifications of privileging Christians above other faiths. Arab Christian leaders in the Middle East told CT they appreciate Trump’s sentiment, but disagree with his strategy. CT asked four evangelical experts in international affairs, religious persecution, and refugee resettlement to weigh in below.
America’s Christian Preference Can Hurt Religious Freedom Elsewhere
David Curry, president and CEO of Open Doors USA
At Open Doors, we feel that it is crucial for Christian refugees and those belonging to other religious minority groups throughout the Middle East to have a safe pathway to refuge in the United States.
But we stand for a need-based resettlement approach that treats all faiths equally. We can’t support a religious test in the United States, or in any other country. Policies akin to this drive horrendous persecution of Christians around the globe. A process that prioritizes one religion over another, as the Trump administration has proposed, can have negative effects not just in America, but around the world.
Throughout the Middle East, there’s a commonly construed notion linking Christians with the United States, or the West in general. The plan to prioritize Christian refugees, while refusing or postponing entry for Muslims, is not likely to improve the situation on the ground for minority Christians in these areas. Even worse, it could tragically result in a backlash against Christians in countries plagued by Islamic extremism.
Open Doors is dedicated to holistically addressing the needs of persecuted Christians in more than 60 countries around the world. But we’re doing more than meeting needs: we’re equipping and empowering the persecuted church to be the church, reaching out in love and compassion within their communities--whether those communities are comprised of other Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Yazidis, or those belonging to another faith or no faith at all.
Every day, we see the courage of persecuted Christians living out the life of Jesus. Their lives are a shining example of the words from 1 John 4:18: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear.”
As American Christians, we currently face a series of policies driven perhaps more by fear than by love. We encourage Christians in America to look to the persecuted church for an example of steadfast courage and radical love—and to reject the temptation to allow fear to rule our lives. We must not allow fear to blind us to the suffering of those belonging to a faith different from ours. Instead, our faith should compel us to be the first to speak out for the oppressed and displaced among us—regardless of their religion or the country they come from.
If the Trump administration wants to get religious freedom right, perhaps President Trump can apply his words of “America first” to this crucial issue. We cannot compromise on religious freedom within our own borders and expect to hold other countries accountable for protecting freedom of religion.
We encourage the Trump administration to seek to address the root causes of violent religious persecution throughout the world. This means integrating international religious freedom at the very core of United States foreign policy—and ensuring that we uphold religious freedom within our own borders.
The US Must Do More for Minority Faiths Facing Genocide Abroad
Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom
The fact that President Trump’s executive order allows the government to prioritize individual claims of religious-based persecution from religious minorities—whether Christian, Yazidi, Jew, Muslim, Bahá’í, Buddhist, etc.—should be welcome news to every Christian and everyone concerned with human rights and religious freedom.
ISIS has waged genocide against Christians and other minorities for nearly three years. The terror group carried out its slogan, “We will break your crosses and enslave your women,” with literal precision against the ancient Christian community of several Middle Eastern countries. The Yazidis, another ancient religion, saw ISIS abduct more than 3,000 of its women and girls for sexual enslavement, and mass graves of their men are now being unearthed.
In March 2016, the US government officially designated ISIS as responsible for genocide against various religious minorities, but adopted no new policies to help them. The State Department argued it was already prioritizing the “vulnerable minorities.” But in several aspects, the Christians were in reality put at the back of the line.
Of the 12,587 Syrian refugees admitted under the ramped-up refugee program during the last fiscal year, a mere 0.5 percent were Christians, equivalent to about a dozen families. Yet, by State Department estimates, Christians accounted for up to 10 percent of Syria’s population. The marginalization against Christians extends to key UN programs for refugee camps, humanitarian aid, and resources to reconstruct their destroyed towns and villages.
Trump’s prioritization is critically needed as religious persecution and terror targeting religious minorities spreads in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa—and especially in Syria and Iraq.
Some argue the religious minority provision is unworkable; that the vetting process can’t identify Christians. But in Iraq and Syria, this should not be a problem. Many Christians speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus of Nazareth. Most belong to hierarchical churches with local bishops and priests or small evangelical churches that can vouch for them.
Much of the uproar surrounding the order is based on the misconception that it prioritizes Christians per se and functions as a “Muslim ban.” Instead, priority is given to persecuted individuals from religious minorities. Rohingya Muslims from Burma, Ahmadi Muslims from Pakistan, Iraqi Yazidis, Iranian Bahá’ís, and Vietnamese independent Buddhists could all qualify. Furthermore, similar efforts to prioritize minorities have not precluded the country from accepting compelling cases from majority groups.
Temporary suspensions of entry from seven predominantly Muslim countries while security vetting is reviewed over three months hardly constitutes a ban on Muslims. Those countries were taken from a 2016 list drawn up by the Obama administration—not because they were Muslim, but because they were “countries of concern” for terrorist travel prevention. These suspensions seem justifiable given last year’s CIA warning that ISIS threatens to infiltrate refugees to attack the West. Temporary suspensions from some of these countries occurred under Obama with little protest.
This is not to say that there should be no concern or criticism over Trump’s policy. The Christian versus Muslim mischaracterizations could feed terrorist propaganda. The hasty application of the suspensions without notice, its application to green card and dual passport holders (a provision now reportedly rescinded), and the indefinite suspension of Syrian refugees are unfair and should be changed.
But giving priority to persecuted religious minorities—minorities of any religious background—is not an injustice. Rather, it will serve justice, by upholding our highest ideals of offering refuge to genocide survivors and others among the world’s most vulnerable.
Fewer Refugees Means Fewer Christians
Matthew Soerens, US director of church mobilization for World Relief
I appreciate the president’s goal to assist the persecuted. I believe the Bible teaches that all people (not just fellow Christians) are made in God’s image with inherent human dignity, and that the neighbor whom Jesus commands us to love cannot be narrowly defined to exclude those of other religions. My faith compels me to continue to welcome carefully screened Muslim and other non-Christian refugees. Yet, I am also particularly concerned about the well-being of persecuted Christians.
The US refugee resettlement program has been a lifeline for these persecuted brothers and sisters. Over the past decade, more Christians have been admitted to the US as refugees than those of any other religious tradition, including many persecuted because of their faith from countries like Iraq and Burma.
I’m concerned that the language of the executive order will actually be harmful to the persecuted Christians the president is seeking to help.
By reducing the total number of refugees resettled to the US by more than half—from 110,000 to 50,000—it will necessarily mean that fewer persecuted Christians will be admitted to the US this year than last year.
So far, more than 32,000 refugees have already been admitted toward that 50,000 maximum (about 43 percent of whom have been Christians). Even if every slot left were filled by a Christian—which I believe would be a serious error—at least 5,000 fewer Christian refugees would be allowed in this year.
While the executive order notes a particular preference for persecuted religious minorities, other elements of the order work against these groups. The order also bars all Syrian nationals—both Muslims and Christians—from the resettlement program indefinitely. And countries from which a significant share of refugees in recent years have been persecuted religious minorities—such as Iran, where Christians and religious minorities have made up 95 percent of refugees in recent years—are blocked for at least 90 days and possibly longer.
Most importantly, though, by prioritizing refugees based on religion—rather than on vulnerability, as has been our government’s policy—this policy plays into the narrative of anti-Christian extremists who paint all Christians as enemies of Islam. Ultimately, it stokes anti-Christian sentiment, feeds extremism, puts religious minority Christians at risk globally, and harms gospel witness.
Our Muslim Neighbors Bear the Brunt of Violence
Jeremy Courtney, cofounder and executive director of the Preemptive Love Coalition in Iraq
When it comes to the question of whether Christians should favor a refugee policy that prioritizes fellow Christians, we should first think about what it really means to “take care of our own.” How do we take care of our Christian sisters and brothers in Syria and Iraq? Have we stopped to ask them what that would look like?
I don’t mean just being a safe haven to run to when their churches and homes are destroyed by violence, but whether we as a nation are pursuing the policies and diplomacy that give them the greatest chance of surviving and flourishing where they are—so they don’t have to flee their homeland.
If we’re serious about taking care of fellow Christians, we need to have a hard conversation about some of our interventions in places like Syria and Iraq, and the impact they’ve had on the ancient Christian communities there.
Second, we have to get past this zero-sum thinking that says either we take care of “our own” or “the other”—that it’s our security or their well-being. We belong to each other. The well-being of my Christian neighbors in Iraq and Syria is tied up in the well-being of my Muslim neighbors. Sometimes, they understand that better than we do.
A couple of weeks ago, I was in Mosul with a friend named Marwan, an internal refugee who had to flee violence inside his own country. Standing in a church that had been destroyed by ISIS, he found two pieces of metal from the rubble and fashioned a makeshift cross. He wanted to send a message to his Christian neighbors: “You belong here. I am for you.” I hope we can do the same for people like Marwan.
Christians have suffered immensely in Iraq and Syria and are extremely vulnerable, but Muslims have borne the brunt of the violence here. When ISIS snipers shot at women and children as they tried to flee Fallujah, after holding the city hostage, those fleeing were Sunni Muslims.
When ISIS captured Mosul, they allowed almost all the Christians to leave. They took their homes and desecrated their churches, but mostly allowed them to go. The Muslim population was not so fortunate; they’ve had to endure more than two years of terror under ISIS. Muslims have spilled more blood than anyone else fighting ISIS. It’s not even close.
So, to ask the question: Are there times when it makes sense for the church to take care of its own first? I think Jesus had a parable for that. When somebody wanted to know who counted as a neighbor—a thinly veiled way of asking, “Who am I allowed to exclude?”—Jesus told a story about a Samaritan who stepped across enemy lines to love “the other.” Today, the Samaritan could just as easily be played by a Muslim.
Will we stick to the narrowest definition of neighbor? Or will we aspire to the example of Jesus, reject the zero-sum game, and recognize that we belong to each other?
How that plays out in foreign and domestic policies is something that good people of character can disagree on respectfully and in love. But we must keep working to give ourselves away on the front lines to those who need it most.