Since civil war erupted in 2011, half of Syria’s nearly 22 million people have been displaced—including many of its Christians.
Before the conflict, approximately 1.1 million Syrians, or 5.2 percent of the population, were Christians. The majority—at least 700,000—have now fled.
That means that roughly 18 percent of Syria’s estimated 4 million refugees are Christians. So why have only less than 3 percent of the 2,184 Syrian refugees resettled in the United States from 2011 until now been Christians?
As Christians debate state bans on Syrian refugees after the Paris attacks, American Christians are “curious, and somewhat concerned, that there appear to be no Christian refugees in sight,”wrote Faith McDonnell of the Institute on Religion and Democracy for The Stream. She faults the Obama administration and US resettlement agencies which plan to increase the number of refugees resettled but have failed to support legislation that would fast track Christians for resettlement in America.
Christian refugees need special treatment, argues Nina Shea of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, because the United Nations refugee processing system “disproportionately excludes them.” According to Shea, it’s difficult for Christians to pass through the bureaucratic channels necessary to obtain refugee status, and they face dangers along the way.
No one is disputing the fact that the US has resettled 2,098 Muslims and 53 Christians from Syria since 2011, according to the latest statistics from the Refugee Processing Center.
However, the situation may not be as discriminatory as the numbers seem, said Matthew Soerens, US director of church mobilization for World Relief. The humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), World Relief is one of nine agencies authorized to resettle refugees in the US, and has resettled more than 250,000 over the past 35 years.
A typical security check for refugees takes 18 months—but it’s often longer for Middle Eastern refugees, he said. For example, the overwhelming majority of Iraqi refugees didn’t start arriving in the States until about five years after the beginning of the conflict in Iraq. So the bulk of Syrian Christian refugees are likely still waiting to be processed, he said.
“For a refugee, from the time they flee to until they’re in a permanent situation is 17 years,” said Soerens. “So five years is actually on the really short end. There are some refugees who might wait 30 years.”
And many Syrian Christians didn’t begin the resettlement process immediately after the civil war sparked in March 2011, he said. Instead, many Christians stayed longer in Syria because they felt protected by the Bashar al-Assad regime.
Other Christians fled to neighboring Lebanon. Now home to more than one million refugees—more than one-third of its population—Lebanon has taken the longest to resettle displaced people, says Soerens.
Socioeconomic status also plays a part.
“Christians tended to be better off economically than the average Muslim in Syria,” said Soerens. For the wealthier refugees, applying for a tourist visa is a quicker avenue of escape. Once they arrive as tourists, they can petition the US government for asylum.
Since the start of the war, the number of Syrian asylum petitions has steadily risen. In 2010, 36 petitions were filed. Last year, petitions totaled 1,586.
Since 2011, the US has approved just over one-third (37%) of the cases filed. Christians are likely overrepresented in these figures, said Soerens.
He rejected accusations that the US was trying to discriminate against Syrian Christians.
“I’m wary to assume a discriminatory factor here, given the reputation of the US resettlement program,” said Soerens. “It has helped more persecuted Christians than any other religious group.”
Since 2003, the US has resettled more than 762,000 refugees, and nearly 340,000 of them have been Christians, according to State Department statistics. The percentage of Christian refugees from each country varies greatly, depending on the circumstances.
For example, consider the countries that top Open Doors’ 2015 World Watch List of the countries where it’s hardest to be a Christian. Of the nearly 9,000 Afghani refugees resettled in the US in the past 12 years, just over 1 percent are Christians. But of the almost 15,000 refugees from Eritrea, 85 percent are Christians. By comparison, about 3 percent of Somali refugees, 30 percent of Iraqi refugees, 63 percent of North Korean refugees, and 75 percent of Nigerian refugees have been Christians.
“We don’t have religious tests to our compassion,” President Barack Obama told Turkish reporters this week.
That might change, as several bills have popped up in the US House of Representatives this year, aimed both at expediting the process for religious groups threatened by ISIS and at beefing up the screening of anyone from Iraq or Syria. Some voices, including Franklin Graham, have even called for ending Muslim immigration to America.
“Of course we want to keep terrorists out of our country, but let’s not punish the victims of ISIS for the sins of ISIS,” said Leith Anderson, president of the NAE. “Our system is designed to keep terrorists out and to help desperate families with little children. We want to help the victims of terrorism in the Middle East, not punish them.”
Russell Moore argues in The Washington Post that it is time to “stop pitting security and compassion against each other.” The Gospel Coalition offers an explainer on the Syrian refugee crisis. CT previously spotlighted how refugees and asylum seekers are today’s pilgrims.
On Thursday, a veto-proof majority in the House voted in favor of the American Security Against Foreign Enemies (SAFE) Act. Nearly 50 Democrats joined with Republicans to approve legislation that forbids Syrian and Iraqi refugees from being resettled until the director of the FBI, the director of Homeland Security, and the director of national intelligence confirm that each applicant poses no threat, reports The New York Times.
But the bill would only duplicate security systems in place and “effectively end the program,” said World Relief’s CEO Stephan Bauman. “Refugees are already the most vetted non-citizens in our country.”
Here is World Relief’s full response to the SAFE Act passed on Thursday:
Today, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 4038, the American Security Against Foreign Enemies (SAFE) Act, which would create an extra layer of certification in order for Syrian and Iraqi refugees to come to the United States as refugees in addition to additional reporting requirements.
World Relief, the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals, is strongly against this legislation and urges the United States to continue to welcome and protect Syrian and Iraqi refugees.
For 30 years, World Relief has partnered with local churches to resettle over 260,000 refugees to the United States and in addition since 1975, the United States has resettled more than 3 million refugees – three quarters of a million entered the U.S. in 2001 alone. During this time, there have been no recorded terrorists acts in the U.S. by a refugee. In fact, refugees are already the most vetted non-citizens in our country.
“The refugee resettlement program is a life-saving program that has helped millions of those who have fled persecution start their lives anew in a place of safety. At a time when the U.S. needs to show humanitarian leadership, it would be a mistake to effectively shut down a program that has saved millions of lives,” said Stephan Bauman, President and CEO of World Relief. “It is vital to maintain the integrity of this program by accepting the most vulnerable refugees, not excluding anyone based on their nationality or religion.”
World Relief strongly opposed H.R. 4038- The American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act 2015 due to the following reasons:
H.R. 4038 creates a bureaucratic review process that could take years to implement and would effectively shut down refugee resettlement. The bill requires the approval of the Secretary of Homeland Security, the FBI, and the Department of National Intelligence for each individual refugee. The certification process will have to be created and agreed upon by heads of each agency and could take years to establish. In the meantime, refugees would languish in camps and dangerous situations, Syrian Americans would not be able to reunite with their family members, and there would be very real ramifications for international refugee protection and U.S. foreign policy interests in the region.
The process, once established, would add months or years to the security screening process, which is already the lengthiest and most robust in the world, routinely taking between 18 and 36 months. In addition to obtaining approval from three heads of federal agencies for each refugee, the bill requires reporting to thirteen congressional committees on each refugee that is considered for resettlement. This is unreasonably burdensome and will effectively end the program. Furthermore, for reasons of security and safety, security and medical clearances are only valid for limited periods of time. During the certification process, these clearances will expire. This will mean that refugees will be caught in an un-ending loop of security clearances that will never end.
Refugees are already the most vetted non-citizens in our country. All refugees undergo thorough and rigorous security screenings prior to arriving in the United States, including but not limited to multiple biographic and identity investigations; FBI biometric checks of applicants’ fingerprints and photographs; in-depth, in-person interviews by well-trained Department of Homeland Security officers; medical screenings; investigations by the National Counterterrorism Center; and other checks by U.S. domestic and international intelligence agencies. Supervisory review of all decisions; random case assignment; inter-agency national security teams; trained document experts; forensic testing of documents; and interpreter monitoring are in place to maintain the security of the refugee resettlement program. Due to technological advances, Syrian refugees are also undergoing iris scans to confirm their identity through the process.
The bill is a waste of resources. Funds used to establish and run this certification process would be better used in conducting actual security reviews of refugees and others who are vetted by these agencies.
The bill is a pretext and requires differential treatment of refugees from Syria and Iraq without providing a justification for the additional verification. It is a disguised attempt to stop refugees from two countries long beset by internal conflict, including refugees who have been in neither Syria nor Iraq for four years. Differential treatment, with no clear justification, amounts to discrimination on the basis of nationality without rational basis.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t carefully vet refugees, but let’s get the facts first before making generalizations and shutting down a program that has literally saved thousands of lives.To turn our backs on refugees now would betray our nation’s core values to provide refuge for the persecuted and affirm the very message those who perpetrate terrorism would seek to send.
Now is the time to act. www.wewelcomerefugees.com
President/CEO – World Relief