Evangelist Franklin Graham calls rounding up Iraqi Christians for deportation ‘very disturbing’

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By Sarah Pulliam Bailey
Franklin Graham speaks to Madison, Wis. on June 15, 2016. (DeMoss Group)
Prominent evangelist Franklin Graham says he finds it “very disturbing” that immigration authorities have arrested many Iraqi Christians for possible deportation. President Trump promised earlier this year he would prioritize persecuted Christians, but many international religious freedom advocates say deporting these Christians back to Iraq could put them in serious danger.

Graham, who has been supportive of Trump and his travel ban, urged the president to have someone investigate the cases where dozens of Iraqi nationals were swept up in immigration raids in Michigan and Tennessee.

The arrests came after a deal the United States made with Iraq, which sought to be removed from Trump’s proposed travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries and agreed to accept deported Iraqis. Immigration authorities said all of the Iraqi nationals who were arrested had criminal convictions.

“I understand a policy of deporting people who are here illegally and have broken the law,” Graham wrote on Facebook on Friday. “I don’t know all of the details, but I would encourage our president to give great consideration to the threat to lives of Christians in countries like Iraq.”

A spokesman for Graham said he is traveling and unable to comment further.

Graham, son of famed evangelist Billy Graham, is president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan’s Purse. Though he didn’t formally endorse Trump during the campaign, he read from Scripture at the inauguration and said after the Trump’s win that “God’s hand intervened” in the election.

Last month, Graham joined several other religious leaders to watch Trump announce an executive order on religious freedom, saying the president gave him and other evangelical leaders a tour of his private quarters in the White House. Vice President Pence headlined Graham’s recent World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians to highlight the plight of Christians around the world.

With 5.7 million fans on Facebook, Graham has regularly praised the president and his policies, including the proposed travel ban.

“Taking action to secure our borders had to start somewhere,” Graham wrote. “Is it perfect? Maybe not, but it is a first step. … I believe the best way to help is to reach out and help these people in their own countries.”

[How Donald Trump is bringing Billy Graham’s complicated family back into White House circles]

Graham is also known for making other controversial remarks about Islam, LGBT issues and climate change. After men reportedly shouted “this is for Allah,” during recent attacks in London, Graham wrote, “The threat of Islam is dangerous.”

After Trump pulled out of the Paris climate agreement, Graham wrote, “God gave us the earth to use, and we are called to be good stewards of it and use it wisely.”

Other evangelical leaders have spoken out, including the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s policy arm Russell Moore and Lynne Hybels, co-founder of Chicago-area megachurch Willow Creek.

Many immigrants fear for their safety if they are sent back to Iraq, Jeremy Courtney, an American Christian who is living in Iraq, wrote for The Washington Post. Many Christians were killed under Saddam Hussein’s regime and continued to be targeted after the U.S. invasion in 2003, as well as in the years since the Islamic State has come onto the scene.

Last year, Congress voted unanimously to recognize the killings of Christians in the Middle East as a genocide.

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“On a practical level, this is mind-boggling,” Nina Shea, an international human-rights lawyer who runs the Center for Religious Freedom at the Washington-based Hudson Institute, told Religion News Service. “In a situation of genocide you don’t deport anybody. We didn’t even deport Gitmo detainees to places where they would be killed.”

The ACLU on Thursday filed a lawsuit in an attempt to halt possible deportations.

“We are hoping that the courts will recognize the extreme danger that deportation to Iraq would pose for these individuals,” Kary Moss, executive director for the ACLU of Michigan, wrote in a statement. “Our immigration policy shouldn’t amount to a death sentence for anyone.”

The issue reflects how evangelicals, many of whom voted for Trump and still support him, are getting some of the things they want but are frustrated by the administration’s direction in other areas. The biggest win, many of them say, is his successful Supreme Court nomination of Neil M. Gorsuch, seen as key to upholding the conservative end of the bench. He has largely met their expectations on abortion policies so far.

But evangelicals have felt let down in other areas. They wanted Trump to issue an executive order on religious freedom that would include allowing people to decline to provide services if it goes against their religious beliefs. Instead, he signed an executive order many observers saw as disappointing. Evangelicals also urged the president to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which he has decided against for now.