President Obama made headlines today in reaction to a question from the press regarding the possibility of taking in Syrian Christian and other religious minorities ahead or in place of Syrian Muslims (Syria is majority Sunni Muslim.) The President responded aggressively claiming such a policy was, “… not American. That’s not who we are. We don’t have religious tests to our compassion.”
The reality however is that the Refugee Resettlement system already has “a religious test of their compassion”, to quote the president. And that’s a test which actively disfavors Christians, according to figures released by the State Department:
Of 2,184 Syrian refugees admitted into the U.S. since the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011, only 53 (2.4 percent) have been Christians while 2098 (or 96 percent) have been Muslims, according to State Department statistics updated on Monday. The remaining 33 include 1 Yazidi, 8 Jehovah Witnesses, 2 Baha’i, 6 Zoroastrians, 6 of “other religion,” 7 of “no religion,” and 3 atheists.
The CIA Factbook for Syria gives the stated percentage of Christians in Syria at 10%. Estimates by Christian aid groups have suggested between half a million and 700,000 Syrian Christians have fled the country, making them between 16% to 23% of the estimated 3 million Syrian refugees who have fled the country. This seems reasonable, given that Christian groups in the Middle East face aggressive discrimination from a wide variety of the factions fighting across the Middle East, including especially the Islamic State, and so could reasonably be conceived to make up a disproportionate percentage of refugees.
So depending on calculation method Christian refugees could fairly be between 10% to 23% of the total refugee flow from Syria, ignoring any other questions of preference such as propensity to support groups like Islamic State.
But they are only 2.4%. That is heavily suggestive that there is a systematic bias against Christian refugees within the system.
One of the elements at play is the fact that for the most part, the United States does not get to select its own refugees. As Nina Shea highlights at National Review, The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is typically the deciding agency, and recommends to the United States which refugees will be resettled. So the selection process hits several snags. Firstly, Christian refugees almost overwhelmingly avoid United Nations refugee camps out of legitimate fears of possible violence against them. Reports of attacks on Christians refugees by their Muslim counterparts have been reported, such as when Christian refugees on a boat in the Mediterranean were thrown overboard, and German police have openly urged publicly separating Christian and Muslim refugees, due to attacks. In one case a Christian convert was beaten unconscious by a metal baton.
Secondly, the United Nations itself is strongly beholden to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), it’s largest voting bloc, which has its own views on the refugee situation that are unlikely to conform with U.S. interests and equally unlikely to favor Christians, given that at the OIC’s home headquarters, in Saudi Arabia, the practice of Christianity is itself largely illegal.
Thirdly, and perhaps most largely problematic, is the appearance of overt anti-Christian bias by the State Department itself. As good friend of the Center, Institute for Religion and Democracy’s Faith McDonnell notes in her recent piece on the state of Christian refugees, the State Department has explicitly declared they, “would not support a special category to bring Assyrian Christians into the United States,” in response to a plan by a private aid group to fund, entirely free of taxpayer dollars, the transport of Assyrian Christians facing extermination by Islamic State.
In other words, even when its free, no cost to them, the State Department has preferred to snub Christians rather than save them.
So it’s true that there is a “religious test” for refugee admittance into the United States, but it is a deck stacked against Christians, not for them. President Obama is treating efforts to address this ongoing discrimination as if it, and not the original policy, is based in bias.
It is highly disingenuous that the President is treating any criticism of a discriminatory system of resettlement as itself discriminatory, in order to shut up debate about the plight of Middle Eastern Christians.