Why Trump's refugee policy divides religious leaders

In prioritizing the threat faced by Christians above those faced by Muslims, the Trump administration is opening itself up to claims of being 'Christians first,' just as it vows to be 'America first.'

Ryan Kang/AP
A demonstrator prays as protests against President Trump's executive order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries continued at Los Angeles International Airport Sunday.

When President Trump tried to explain his executive order to put a temporary halt to anyone coming to the United States from seven Muslim countries on Sunday, he tried to offer a simple statement to quell the mounting furor:

“This is not about religion, this is about terror and keeping our country safe.”

Over the weekend, as the order began to be implemented, customs officials detained the mostly Muslim travelers arriving from these seven countries, which include Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Protesters at airports argued that these people had already been vetted and were being unfairly detained.

Yet beyond this weekend’s controversy, Mr. Trump’s order also includes an extra provision: Once the immigration system is overhauled and a revamped “extreme vetting” process is put in place, his administration will prioritize the petitions of Christian refugees and other religious minorities fleeing persecution in these war-torn Muslim regions.

No one denies the threat that Christians in these countries face. Last year, the Obama administration called Islamic State atrocities against religious minorities a “genocide” – garnering rare praise from Evangelical leaders.

But in prioritizing the threat faced by Christians above those faced by Muslims, the Trump administration is opening itself up to claims of being “Christians first,” just as it vows to be “America first.”

To many Evangelicals, that is as it should be. Trump’s move points to “a radical, revolutionary approach to turn back the clock and get America back on the right track and to give us more time to become a Biblical nation again – which you can only do by protecting our borders,” says the Rev. James Linzey, state chaplain for the California council of chapters of the Military Officers Association of America.

But it gives other Christian and Jewish leaders pause. For a nation founded on the principles of religious freedom, the act of putting some religions at the front of the line sets a dangerous precedent, they say.

Such choices “call into question the values on which this country was founded,” says Bill O’Keefe, head of government relations and advocacy at Catholic Relief Services. “So we’re very concerned.”

For many of Trump’s most ardent followers, the push to offer asylum for Christians persecuted in Muslim-majority nations has been building for more than a decade. The fact that Trump made it a first-week priority has led to “ecstasy” among many, says Mr. Linzey, who was one of the first of a vocal subgroup of evangelical leaders to publicly endorse Trump.

“I agree with the president in prioritizing along religious lines, because the religion of Islam is what does propel the radical jihadists to do what they’re doing,” he says. “And we are a Christian nation, we were founded as a Christian nation, that’s the nature of America.”

A national religion?

The idea that America is a nation chosen by God to be a beacon and a “city upon a hill” has long been deeply embedded within a segment of white Evangelicals, 8 in 10 of whom voted for Trump.

In early 2015, a survey by Public Policy Polling found that 57 percent of Republicans supported the idea of making Christianity the national religion. Last summer, a survey by from the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution found that 40 percent of Americans – and 77 percent of Trump supporters – agreed that there should be a temporary ban on Muslims.

The Rev. Franklin Graham, who also called for a ban on Muslims, told voters the Monday before the election that there needs to be “a Christian revolution in America. Let’s support men and women ... who will lead this country back to really being one nation under God, so that we can truthfully say, once again, “In God we trust.”

For his part, Trump insisted Sunday that his order was not a “Muslim ban,” like the one he proposed after the San Bernardino terrorist shootings in 2015. It is a focus on terrorists within “countries of particular concern,” Trump said.

Critics point out that many countries where terrorists have come from in the past – such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kyrgyzstan, and Pakistan – are not part of the ban. Meanwhile, no refugees from six of the seven countries included in the temporary ban have carried out terrorist attacks. The exception is Somalia; a Somali refugee used his car and a knife to carry out an attack in Columbus, Ohio, last November.

The pending religious litmus test for prioritizing refugees is not for Christians per se, according to the order, but for “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.”

For many, however, the image of Muslim travelers – who had committed no crime and had their travel papers in order – being detained at United States airports pointed to a callous lack of concern or compassion.

“This issue is deeply personal to me,” said Isa Rahman Ibrahim, who spoke in front of a chanting crowd of more than 1,000 protesters who gathered in Manhattan’s Washington Square last week. “My father still lives in Syria, and I have family and friends who are refugees all over parts of Europe today.”

“These are times of uncertainty,” Ms. Ibrahim continued, “times when sisters and brothers in our community are being singled out and other-ized.”

Shared concerns for all religions

Yet the size of the protests that emerged this weekend spoke to concerns that spread far beyond the Muslim community.

“Southern Baptists are among the many Americans living in majority-Muslim countries to carry out the biblical call to love their neighbors,” wrote Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, in an open letter to the president in The Washington Post.

Like other Christian leaders, he worries that the executive order would lead to increased threats for Christian aid workers abroad.

“We work in so many Muslim majority countries, all the countries surrounding the Syrian conflict, so we know that restricting the ability of people fleeing violence is going to jeopardize the lives of innocent people,” says Mr. O’Keefe of Catholic Relief Services.

“We share a concern for persecuted Christians, for Yazidis, for Shia Muslims,” adds O’Keefe, who traveled to Iraq earlier this month. “But human need is not restricted to these groups.”

“Muslim needs, and their fleeing from violent persecution, is certainly legitimate, too,” he says. “And we also are concerned that a religious test applied to Muslims today can become a religious test against Christians tomorrow.”

It’s a concern shared by Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, director of programs for T'ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, a Manhattan-based group of rabbis and cantors from all streams of Judaism. She notes that immigration restrictions in the US and Canada during the 1940s caused many refugees fleeing the Nazis to perish.

“It goes against what it means to me to be an American,” Ms. Kahn-Troster says. “Although I absolutely appreciate that there are Christians who are targeted in Muslim majority countries, just as many Jews are, to write this executive order to prioritize one group of refugees over another is really appalling.”

“This is real history for a lot of American Jews, who know that even when we faced such significant dangers in Europe during the time of the Holocaust, America closed its doors to them since they thought they were national security threats,” she adds.

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