Christians make up a tiny percentage of the Syrian refugees the United States has resettled. Is that wrong?
The topic is raging this week, with multiple governors and GOP presidential candidates saying Syrian refugees should be shut out after the Paris attacks by Muslim radicals. President Obama then said it was "shameful" to have a religious test for refugees of war. "That's not American. That's not who we are. We don't have religious tests to our compassion," he said.
In fact, the role of religion in how refugees are considered and how the United States looks at persecution is more complicated. Religion is considered by both the United Nations and the State Department, which defines a refugee as "someone who has fled from his or her home country and cannot return because he or she has a well-founded fear of persecution based on religion, race, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group."
A torrent of other issues also come when refugee status is considered. How severely persecuted is the group? Is their religion the primary factor or are there other issues, such as political or ethnic affiliations that are equally or more significant? Does the group have other options, anywhere to else to go?
Whether the United States works too hard or not hard enough for persecuted Christians overseas has become increasingly explosive in the last decade. In that period, conditions for religious minorities in the Middle East have seriously deteriorated. And in the United States, some religious Americans see hostility in President Obama's liberalizing policies about birth control and gay rights. Among many of these people, and others, anti-Muslim sentiment is on the rise. Some 30 percent of Americans wrongly believe Obama is Muslim.
Advocates for Middle Eastern Christians note that this group is disappearing from the region of Jesus's birth in the rubble of government chaos in Iraq, Syria and Egypt.
This week such Americans were jarred by a Yahoo News report that the State Department is about to designate the Islamic State's assault on the small population of Yazidis in Iraq genocide -- a very rare move that could have implications for the United States to hold perpetrators accountable. While other religious minorities from the region, including Christians, are described as severely persecuted for their faith, the Yazidis are described as under a particular kind of siege.
The report suggests the government is influenced by a Nov. 12 paper by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide. That paper said the Islamic State "is carrying out a widespread, systematic, and deliberate campaign of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity" against Yazidis, Christians, Turkmen, Shabak and other minority groups. Of that group, only the Yazidis faced genocide because "the attacks on them were to make sure no future Yazidis would be born. To end them as a people altogether," Naomi Kikoker, deputy director of the center, told The Post. She cited interviews with residents and said Christians "faced slightly different treatment" if "horrific," being forced to leave, pay a tax or convert.
That was the first time the museum had declared anything a genocide since 2004, when it used the term for the Darfur region of Sudan.
But the possibility of a State Department proclamation led prominent advocates for Middle Eastern Christians to say it showed bias.
"If true, it would reflect a familiar pattern within the administration of a politically correct bias that views Christians -- even non-Western congregations such as those in Iraq and Syria -- never as victims but always as Inquisition-style oppressors," wrote Nina Shea in National Review Nov. 13.
State Department officials who work on this topic were not available for comment for this story. However, last month, Rabbi David Saperstein, the department's ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, was asked at a news conference about the claim that the West has "abandoned" Middle Eastern Christians.
There are "competing truths," Saperstein said; a "robust effort" to protect Christians, while at the same time the reality of their imperiled lives.
"There's no magic button that can fix this. It is -- as the president has said, it is going to be long, steady progress here until we can reach the kind of goals that we want. If you're living there, and you fear for the well-being of your family every day, certainly you're going to feel like the world isn't doing enough about it. It's a paradox. We recognize that reality," Saperstein said on Oct. 14.
Most refugees who come to the United States are referred through the United Nations. In a State Department briefing earlier in the fall, a department official said less than 2 percent of the Syrian refugees registered to the United States are Christian.
Some advocates who work with Christian refugees from Iraq and Syria say Christians are terrorized in U.N. refugee camps -- that should have a better system to protect religious minorities -- and thus stay away, living instead with private charities or families while on the move. As a result, the advocates say, they are unfairly excluded from the U.N. process. The United States and the United Nations should also take into consideration more the fact that there aren't neighboring countries in the Middle East where Christians can easily find community, these advocates say, meaning they should get special consideration in a Christian-majority country like the United States.
"Christians can't just hop over to another country," said Johnnie Moore, an evangelical writer who advocates and fundraises for Middle Eastern Christian refugees.
In September, George Carey -- former archbishop of Canterbury -- wrote that "the Christian community is yet again left at the bottom of the heap." Carey also said Syrian Christians are unable to safely stay in U.N. camps and that the small minority should be given a special priority by Britain.
"Britain should make Syrian Christians a priority because they are a particularly vulnerable group. Furthermore, we are a Christian nation with an established Church so Syrian Christians will find no challenge to integration. The churches are already well-prepared and eager to offer support and accommodation to those escaping the conflict," he wrote in The Telegraph.
Chris Seiple, a longtime advocate on international religious freedom who has advised the State Department, said while Muslims have suffered statistically far more from the Islamic State because they are the majority, religious minorities -- Christians and Yazidis in particular -- are getting disproportionately hit because they are so small.
"They are facing an existential threat that Muslims are not," said Seiple, whose father, Robert Seiple, was the first U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom at the State Department.
The bigger issue in the Middle East, Chris Seiple said, is the lack of a broad regional strategy that affords protection for religious minorities. In the United States, politics looms, he said.
"The politics of the current situation is that many Christians think Obama is a Muslim. And that they think Obama won't name the threat [of Muslim extremism] in the name of common sense, and he won't acknowledge it. Because of those two things, people think he won't give preference to Christians who are at the end of their line," he said.
Chris Seiple, who works with groups on the ground in Iraq, said he has personal knowledge of cases in which Christians were not given the same access as other religious minorities at the U.S. consulate in Erbil, Iraq. A lot of what's said about this topic, he said, is rumor among people who work with refugees. "Everyone is an activist and has their own contacts," he said.
While some -- including Chris Seiple -- are concerned about the treatment of Christian refugees, he said the irony is that "the perception abroad is that we're only concerned about Christians. The United States needs a clearer, better-communicated strategy on how it deals with religious topics around refugees. The way we do this is just as important as the what."
The Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit who sits on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom -- an independent government commission -- said from his work on the ground, the role of religion can get blended in with so many other factors. People of a faith can be safe in one part of a country and not in another. Advocates have different perspectives.
"People have different perceptions and different interests. Clearly in the U.S. many Christians are concerned about their own, that's natural, but that can't be government policy," Reese said. "We have to be concerned about all people who are persecuted because of their religion."