The U.S. Bars Christian, Not Muslim, Refugees From Syria

This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations site.

The headline for this column—The U.S. Bars Christian, Not Muslim, Refugees From Syria—will strike many readers as ridiculous.

But the numbers tell a different story: The United States has accepted 10,801 Syrian refugees, of whom 56 are Christian. Not 56 percent; 56 total, out of 10,801. That is to say, one-half of 1 percent.

The BBC says that 10 percent of all Syrians are Christian, which would mean 2.2 million Christians. It is quite obvious, and President Barack Obama and Secretary John Kerry have acknowledged it, that Middle Eastern Christians are an especially persecuted group.

So how is it that one-half of 1 percent of the Syrian refugees we’ve admitted are Christian, or 56, instead of about 1,000 out of 10,801—or far more, given that they certainly meet the legal definition?

The definition: someone who “is located outside of the United States; is of special humanitarian concern to the United States; demonstrates that they were persecuted or fear persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.”

09_13_Syria_Christian_01 Four-year old Asra, a Christian refugee from Syria, stands in front of a Christmas tree at a refugee shelter in an evangelic church in Oberhausen, Germany, on December 22, 2015. When up to a million Syrian Christians have fled Syria, why has the U.S. accepted only 56? Elliott Abrams asks. Ina Fassbender/reuters

Somewhere between a half million and a million Syrian Christians have fled Syria, and the United States has accepted 56. Why?

“This is de facto discrimination and a gross injustice,” Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, told Fox News. Fox notes another theory: The United States takes refugee referrals from the U.N. refugee camps in Jordan, and there are no Christians there.

Here’s the Fox excerpt:

Experts say another reason for the lack of Christians in the makeup of the refugees is the makeup of the camps. Christians in the main United Nations refugee camp in Jordan are subject to persecution, they say, and so flee the camps, meaning they are not included in the refugees referred to the U.S. by the U.N.

“The Christians don’t reside in those camps because it is too dangerous,” Shea said. “They are preyed upon by other residents from the Sunni community, and there is infiltration by ISIS and criminal gangs.”

“They are raped, abducted into slavery and they are abducted for ransom. It is extremely dangerous; there is not a single Christian in the Jordanian camps for Syrian refugees,” Shea said.

The solution would be to allow Christians, and other religious minorities, to apply directly for refugee status, not through the U.N. U.S. Senator Tom Cotton has introduced legislation doing just that.

As his website explains:

Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) today [March 17] introduced the Religious Persecution Relief Act, legislation that would grant religious minorities fleeing persecution at the hands of ISIS and other groups in Syria priority status so they can apply directly to the U.S. resettlement program.

The bill will also set aside 10,000 resettlement slots annually that must be devoted to Syrian religious minorities. Overall, the bill will allow Syrian religious minorities, who fear registration with the U.N. refugee agency, to circumvent the U.N. process, and it will fast-track the U.S. review process that confirms they are victims of genocide and persecution.

Is the title of this column an overstatement, suggesting that the United States “bars” Christian refugees from Syria?

Sure, in that we do not and could not legally ban Christian refugees any more than we could or should bar Muslim refugees. But when you have been running a refugee program for years, and you have accepted 10,612 Sunni refugees and 56 Christians, and it is obvious why and obvious how to fix it, and nothing is done to fix it—well, the results speak more loudly than speeches, laws, intentions or excuses. In effect, we make it almost impossible for Christian refugees to get here.

So I’ll stick with that heading. And I agree with Shea: “This is de facto discrimination and a gross injustice.” Hats off to Cotton for seeing it for what it is and suggesting a viable solution. His bill would bring this shameful practice to an end and save the lives of many Syrian Christians.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.