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A damaged painting of Jesus Christ on the ground of Syriac Orthodox Um al-Zinar church in the Christian Hamidiyeh neighbourhood of the old city of Homs, central Syria, May 12, 2014. (JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)
(JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)

Should Middle East Religious-Minority Refugees Be Prioritized?

Samuel Tadros

President Trump’s executive order on refugees has been widely, and rightly, criticized on policy and moral grounds. But while criticism of the executive order is indeed proper and necessary, one aspect of the new policy, namely the prioritization of claims of religious persecution by religious minorities in refugee applications, which has received wide criticism, should in fact be hardly controversial. Critics of the measure have rejected it on both moral grounds—it discriminates based on one’s faith, as well as on practical ones—the perception of such bias towards Christians by the United States would impact the US negatively and may harm those very same Christian communities in the region, who will be viewed as Western agents. These concerns are of course hardly new. Opposition to such policies has been constantly expressed in the past by the Patriarchs and clergy of these communities who fear that an open door for their flock in the West would further contribute to the eradication of Christianity from the Middle East. As serious as these concerns may be, prioritizing religious minorities is neither discriminatory nor likely to result in worse conditions for Middle East Christians. Nor is such a measure even novel, but rather one that has been repeatedly used in the past and continues to be used by the United States in other cases. Rather, any refugee policy driven by realities on the ground has to prioritize Middle East religious minorities.

There is no doubt that millions suffer from the harrowing experience of state collapse, civil wars and discriminatory policies all across the Middle East. For some communities, however, namely religious minorities such as Baha’is, Christians, Mandaeans, Yazidis and Zoroastrians, the threat they confront is not of discrimination or persecution but rather annihilation. This is not an attempt to diminish the suffering of others, but rather a description of reality. That reality was recognized by the State Department last March with Secretary Kerry declaring that the Islamic State was committing genocide against Christians, Shiites and Yazidis. Genocide, of course, is a specific legal term and carries responsibilities for all countries.

Furthermore, while all communities in the path of the Islamic State may be forced to flee, the refuge opportunities available differs significantly based on one’s ethnic and religious background. A Sunni fleeing Assad’s butchery may find a home in a neighboring Sunni country, or in other Sunni territory in Syria, but where can a Yazidi go? Surely not to Baghdad, where he would be persecuted. Is Turkey, which persecutes its own Christian population, supposed to be the choice destiny for Syria or Iraq’s Christians? Do we expect Assyrians to be comfortable going to Kurdish areas? Moreover, even when/if the Islamic State is defeated, the likelihood of return diminishes for these religious minorities. Does one seriously expect Christians to be able to return to Mosul, where their homes have likely been occupied by others, and where many of their neighbors stood silently watching as the Islamic State targeted them? The Jewish experience in Poland following the Holocaust is a reminder of what these communities await.

Some may point to Jordan as a welcoming place for these minorities, and even more so to Lebanon. But in Jordan, which should be lauded for its welcoming of Syrian refugees, as in any other Arabic speaking country, they will be permanent refugees, forever housed in the camps with no future. A quick visit to a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon would enlighten anyone to what that life entails, as Arabic speaking countries insisted on keeping Palestinians in that state to use as a bargaining chip with Israel. And how stable is Lebanon in a region torn by a Sunni-Shiite war? A decade ago, some Iraqi Christians thought Syria would be a home for them only to be joined now by Syrian Christians on their way out.

Will a prioritization policy, however, make matters worse for these communities? Will they be accused of being a fifth column? As an Arabic proverb says “it does not hurt a sheep to be skinned after being slaughtered.” The fate of a Yazidi girl running from the Islamic State will not be made worse if she is perceived to be a prioritized refugee. Religious minorities in the Levant are being annihilated by the Islamic State. Nothing worse can befall them.

Regardless of one’s views on how many refugees the United States should accept, the reality is that it will not accept all those who seek to come. A prioritization process is natural and hardly novel, and while one that bans people based on their religion is morally repugnant, one that prioritizes the more vulnerable, even on the basis of collectively belonging to religious groups, is not. Current U.S. law creates a category called priority 2 for refugees defined as “groups of special humanitarian concern identified by the U.S. refugee program.” This P2 class includes Ukrainian Catholics, Cuban political activists and members of religious minorities, Iraqis employed by the United States, ethnic minorities in Burma, and Congolese in Rwanda. No serious person would suggest that non-Congolese in Rwanda are being discriminated against by giving priority to a community that is especially vulnerable or that Rohingya Muslims in Burma are not facing conditions that merit the prioritization of their claims. The Obama administration further added minors from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras with a parent legally residing in the United States to the priority 2 category. Should this be read as an anti-Nicaraguan policy?

The prioritization of religious minority application is not only justified, but would also correct a current wrong. Out of 14,460 Syrian refugees admitted into the United States since 2011, only 182 have belonged to religious minorities, namely 124 Christians, 25 Yazidis, six Zoroastrians, three atheists, two Baha’is, fourteen other, and eight with no religion. The reason for such a negligible number of religious minorities is that the United States government depends on the United Nations for choosing applicants from the refugee camps, and religious minorities fear living in those camps as they are subjected to persecution, preferring instead to go to church-run camps. The result, as my colleague Nina Shea has put it, is “de facto discrimination and a gross injustice.”

There is no denial that some of those advocating for prioritizing religious minorities are driven by a preference for their co-religionists whom they perceive as closer to American ideals. While advocating for one’s own is hardly a novel practice in American politics, there is little reason to believe that Middle East Christians are inherently closer to the American ethos. As my colleague Lee Smith wrote, “What makes a pro-Hezbollah, pro-Iran Greek Orthodox Christian a more promising candidate for U.S. citizenship than a pro-Western Sunni?” Instead of advocating for the freedoms they now enjoy for all, many of my fellow Middle Eastern Christians have instead brought the pathologies and hatreds of the Middle East with them to the lands of immigration and today champion discriminatory policies against Muslims. That, above all, is the greatest pity.

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