Skip to main content
Displaced Assyrians take part in a prayer at the Ibrahim-al Khalil Melkite Greek Catholic church on the outskirts of the capital Damascus on March 1, 2015. (LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images)

Christian Syrian Refugees -- United States Won't Admit Non-Muslims

Nina Shea

Over the past five years of Syria’s civil war, the United States has admitted a grand total of 53 Syrian Christian refugees, a lone Yazidi, and fewer than ten Druze, Bahá’ís, and Zoroastrians combined. That so few of the Syrian refugees coming here are non-Muslim minorities is due to American reliance on a United Nations refugee-resettlement program that disproportionately excludes them. Past absolute totals of Syrian refugees to the U.S. under this program were small, but as the Obama administration now ramps up refugee quotas by tens of thousands, it would be unconscionable to continue with a process that has consistently forsaken some of the most defenseless and egregiously persecuted of those fleeing Syria.

The gross underrepresentation of the non-Muslim communities in the numbers of Syrian refugees into the U.S. is reflected year after year in the State Department’s public records. They show, for example, that while Syria’s largest non-Muslim group — Christians of the various Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant traditions — constituted 10 percent of Syria’s population before the war, they are only 2.6 percent of the 2,003 Syrian refugees that the United States has accepted since then.

Syria’s Christian population, which before the war numbered 2 million, has since 2011 been decimated in what Pope Francis described as religious “genocide”. Tens of thousands of Aleppo’s 160,000 Christians alone have fled, many to Lebanon, after 1,000 of their community, including two Orthodox bishops, were abducted and murdered, according to Melkite Catholic archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart. In Khabour valley, an Assyrian bishop is frantically trying to raise ransom for 200 hostages whom ISIS threatens to kill, while many others of his diocese have fled to Turkey. Thousands of Yazidis, who numbered 80,000, have left after many of their girls and women were enslaved by ISIS in Raqqa. In Homs, Hassake, and elsewhere, the non-Muslim minorities face, in addition to Assad’s barrel bombs and war’s deprivations, targeted execution, rape, kidnapping, and forced conversion to Islam, prompting their exodus.

Clearly, far more than a few dozen members of Syria’s religious minorities should qualify as refugees under the legal definition of a refugee as someone with a “well-founded fear of persecution based on religion.” And genocidal levels of religious persecution should be given weight in the U.N.’s calculation of “specific need;” they warrant the selection of religious minorities for resettlement, along with the Muslims among Syria’s 4 million refugees.

Instead, minorities have difficulty getting to step one in the U.N. process. The religious terror that drove them from Syria blocks their registering. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is largely limited to collecting refugee applications and making resettlement referrals from its own camps and centers — the burden of feeding creates strong incentives for this practice. In an e-mail to me, Knox Thames, the State Department’s new special adviser for religious minorities, wrote that “many minorities have not entered the UN system because they are urban refugees.” That is, because they live far from the remote U.N. camps and aid centers, they lack the information and access to register. And, as is widely known, many non-Muslim refugees try hard to avoid these camps.

Like Iraqi Christians who opt for church-run camps over better-serviced U.N. ones, Syrian minorities fear hostility from majority groups inside the latter. According to British media, a terrorist defector asserted that militants enter U.N. camps to assassinate and kidnap Christians. An American Christian aid group reported that the U.N. camps are “dangerous” places where ISIS, militias, and gangs traffic in women and threaten men who refuse to swear allegiance to the caliphate. Such intimidation is also reportedly evident in migrant camps in Europe, leading the German police union to recommend separate shelters for Christian and Muslim migrant groups.

At a discussion of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom on October 27, I directly questioned U.N. High Commissioner António Guterres, an otherwise ardent advocate of diversity, about the short shrift that his office has given all Syria’s non-Muslim minority communities. His rambling reply failed to reassure. He said that, while some individuals should be resettled, as a Catholic he felt that Christians should not leave, because they’re part of the “DNA of the Middle East”; moreover, he said, Lebanon’s former president asked him not to resettle the Christians. Was he revealing a policy of religious bias and unlawful geo-political calculations for U.N. refugee determinations? Or was his sentiment a smokescreen behind which he was trying to flick off an issue he regarded as insignificant?

Other Western countries, the main recipients of Syrian refugees, confront similar problems. In Britain, the House of Lords debated the issue, with Lord David Alton and Baroness Cox noting that many Christian refugees will “not be included in the [U.N.] camp referrals” because they have had to leave the camps after “cruelties inflicted upon them” there. In Canada, prime minister–designate Justin Trudeau has pledged to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees, and Sarho Jammo, the Chaldean Catholic bishop of the Western United States, is leading a campaign to implore that Christians be included.

The abandonment of Syria’s minority refugees has yet to stir Washington. The administration denies that it discriminates against them and, moreover, asserts that it gives them priority. “Due to the unique needs of vulnerable religious minority communities, the State Department has prioritized the resettlement of Syrian Christian refugees and other religious minorities fleeing the conflict,” wrote special adviser Thames. But that policy is meaningless if the State Department relies on an indifferent UNHCR process that functionally excludes them.

According to a recent UNHCR posting, 19,000 Syrians picked straight from “refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan” have received U.N. approval and are awaiting resettlement in the U.S. In October, President Obama ordered their expedited admission. Without further action, however, only token numbers of non-Muslim minorities will be among those rescued. George Carey, former archbishop of Canterbury, called it right about the Christian refugees, and his words equally apply to Syria’s other non-Muslim communities: They are being “left at the bottom of the heap.”

Related Articles

Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, Volume 20

Hillel Fradkin, Husain Haqqani & Eric B. Brown

Analysis on Al-Nusra Front, the Islamic State in Pakistan, Islamism in Morocco, Egypt's Ahrar movement, and an interview with Said Ferjani...

View PDF

Charles Keating's Death Part of Iraq Tragedy: Losing Victory Bush Won

Arthur Herman

Obama’s pro-Iran stance has bred instability-first in the Arabian Peninsula where Saudi Arabia and Iran are fighting a proxy war, but now also in Iraq...

Continue Reading