The late 1980s were dark times for Jews trying to flee persecution in the fading Soviet Union.
Finally, the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) acted, adding language to a massive 1990 appropriations bill to offer special assistance to refugees in persecuted religious minorities. Year after year, the Lautenberg amendment has been extended to provide a lifeline to Jews, Baha’is, Christians and others fleeing persecution in Iran, the former Soviet bloc and parts of Asia.
“There’s nothing new about the United States taking religion into account when it’s clear that refugees are part of persecuted minority groups,” said Samuel Tadros, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom. He also teaches at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.
“Tragically, religion is part of the refugee crises we see around the world right now and that certainly includes what’s happening in Syria and Iraq.”
Thus, Tadros and a few other religious-freedom activists paid close attention — during the #MuslimBan firestorm surrounding President Donald Trump’s first actions on immigration — when they saw language in the executive order that was more nuanced than the fiery rhetoric in the headlines.
In social media, critics were framing everything in reaction to this blunt presidential tweet: “Christians in the Middle-East have been executed in large numbers. We cannot allow this horror to continue!” Trump also told the Christian Broadcasting Network: “If you were a Christian in Syria, it was impossible, at least very tough, to get into the United States. ... If you were a Muslim, you could come in.”
However, the wording of the executive order proposed a different agenda, stating that the “Secretary of State, in consultation with the Secretary of Homeland Security, is further directed to make changes, to the extent permitted by law, to prioritize refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual’s country of nationality.”
The New York Times, however, summarized this part of the order by saying it “gives preferential treatment to Christians who try to enter the United States from majority-Muslim nations.”
The hottest debates, of course, focused on seven Muslim-majority lands — Syria, Iraq, Libya, Iran, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen — designated as “countries of concern” by Obama administration security experts.
It’s crucial that while Christians face brutal oppression in those lands, they are not the only minorities being targeted, said Tadros in an interview. Anyone who has followed the chaos unleashed by the Islamic State and other jihadist groups has seen reports about the persecution facing Yazidis, Alawites, Baha’is, Druze and believers in other faiths, as well as the region’s ancient Christian communities. Shia Muslims often face persecution by majority Sunni Muslims.
During the previous administration, Secretary of State John Kerry used the strongest possible language under international law to describe this crisis. In March 2016, he told reporters that “Daesh” — the Arabic term for the Islamic State — is “responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yazidis, Christians and Shi’ite Muslims. ... Daesh is genocidal by self-proclamation, by ideology and by actions, in what it says, in what it believes and what it does.”
However, refugees from religious groups facing extermination have few options when looking at the map. Can Yazidis — called “devil worshippers” by radical Muslims — flee into other Muslim lands? Are Assyrians safe in Kurdish territories? Can Christians flee into Turkey, which continues to oppress its own ancient Christian community? Can devastated minority-faith families return to the burned-out shells of their Nineveh Plain homes?
Meanwhile, noted Tadros, believers in all of these religious minorities face persecution in the very United Nations refugee camps in which they are forced to survive in order to climb the bureaucratic ladder toward approval for immigration.
“These camps are a reflection of the cultures that surround them,” he said. “The hatreds and divisions inside these communities do not simply disappear when these people become refugees and head into these camps. ...
“Look at it this way: Can you afford to go to church on Sunday morning in a refugee camp when you know that doing this will identify you as a Christian and place the lives of your children at risk?”
Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.