I was privileged to work with ecumenical Christian organizations for more than 20 years and have a deep empathy with Christians trying to live out their faith as minorities in hostile environments. The persecution of Christians—and of all those who are persecuted because of their religious beliefs—needs to be addressed forcefully by the U.S. government. But President Trump’s executive actions to prioritize Christian refugees for resettlement to the United States is a mistake.
There are indeed many cases of horrible violence against Christians in many parts of the world. But singling out Christian refugees for the U.S. resettlement program is not the way to address this persecution. People who are persecuted because of their religion should be protected and allowed to seek safety in other countries. And the 1951 Refugee Convention recognizes religious persecution as a basis for refugee status. People who are singled out for persecution for specific reasons—because of their religion, nationality, race, membership in a social group, or political opinion—should be granted protection under international refugee law. Both the United Nations and the U.S. government currently apply these criteria in determining who is a refugee. This is as it should be.
But to prioritize the persecution of one religious group over others is not the way to go. It gives the impression that Americans care more about Christian lives than about the lives of those of other religions. The persecution of religious minorities is certainly not limited to Christians, as evidenced by ISIS efforts to target—and eliminate—Yazidis in Iraq and Syria. Last summer, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria found that ISIS was committing genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity in its persecution and slaughter of Yazidis. About 65,000 Muslim-minority Rohingyas have been displaced by a brutal crackdown in Myanmar over the last few months. The global refugee system and the U.S. refugee program should continue to protect and assist all those who flee persecution because of their religious identity. Prioritizing Christians is not only politically divisive, but at odds with the central teachings of all of the world’s major religions, as well as the U.S. Constitution.
Hundreds of prominent clergy have spoken up to protest President Trump’s efforts to limit the admission of refugees and to affirm the need to maintain and strengthen the U.S. refugee program for refugees of all ethnic and religious backgrounds. More than 3,500 religious leaders have signed a letter to President Trump opposing any policy change that would prevent “individuals who practice Islam and other faiths from accessing the U.S. refugee resettlement program. Proposals that would have the U.S. State Department disqualify refugees from protection based on their nationality or religion fly in the face of the very principles this nation was built upon...and dishonor our shared humanity.”
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops recently said, “We believe in assisting all those who are vulnerable and fleeing persecution, regardless of their religion. This includes Christians, as well as Yazidis and Shia Muslims from Syria, Rohingyas from Burma, and other religious minorities. However, we need to protect all our brothers and sisters of all faiths, including Muslims.” More than 1,500 Jewish rabbis have spoken out in support of resettling refugees to the U.S. Religious leaders, however, are far from a monolithic bloc. While evangelist Franklin Graham called for stopping all immigration of Muslims to the U.S. until the threat of Islam is settled, World Relief, the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals, is on record as committed to serving the most vulnerable without regard to their religious affiliation.
These political statements are important. But the faith community in the U.S. has an even more important role to play as politics becomes more and more polarized. Communities of faith—churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples—are some of the few places where people of different political beliefs regularly come together in a shared commitment to something beyond politics. Religious leaders—more than politicians or most civil society groups—are in a unique position to encourage civil dialogue, to seek to understand differences, and to ground their discussions not in political pronouncements, but in theology and compassion. Looking at what their unique religious teachings say about justice, compassion, and welcoming strangers is a good way to begin to overcome deeply held differences about refugee policy and government responsibility.
While Christian refugees should not be prioritized in the U.S. resettlement program, I hope that Christians—and Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, and others—will spend some time thinking about what their unique faith traditions say about individual and national responsibility toward those fleeing violence and persecution—whether because of their religion or their race or their political beliefs.
Elizabeth Ferris is a research professor at the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University and non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.