Middle Eastern Christians are Trump’s pawns

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By Daniel Williams
President Trump signs an executive order on Friday at the Pentagon in Washington. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
Daniel Williams is author of “Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East.”
President Trump dropped a sectarian bombshell on Friday into his quick and confused order to curb refugee and immigration flows. He told the Christian Broadcasting Network that “if you were a Christian, it was almost impossible” to enter the United States as a refugee from Syria, adding that “we are going to help them.” The order mandated preferences for minority-religion members in future immigration, which suggests that Christians could be privileged.

Never mind that Trump’s current executive order bans all refugees from Syria, including Christians, indefinitely. Over the weekend, two Christian immigrant families were turned away from Philadelphia’s airport and flown back to the Middle East.

What’s worse is that Trump’s new refugee policy uses the Middle East’s embattled Christians as props. It is less a show of concern for Christians than a shot at his predecessor, Barack Obama. Less than one percent of the 12,600 Syrian refugees admitted by the Obama administration last year were Christian, though Christians make up about a tenth of Syria’s population.

Trump could fix that imbalance simply by saying that he will seek out Christian Syrians along with their Muslim co-nationalists, who both are trying to flee the country’s civil war. But that’s not what Trump is trying to do. Instead, he is using Christians to show that he cares more about them than Obama did, presumably to please some of his American Christian supporters, and to show that he cares about them more than he does Syrian Muslims, whom he has tarred as harboring a nest of “radical Islamic terrorists.” (That many Muslims oppose both the radicals and the government of Bashar al-Assad, which has killed many more Syrians, goes unnoticed by Trump.)

Trump’s exclusionary acrobatics do neither Christians in Syria, nor other victims of persecution elsewhere, any good. U.S. and international laws regarding refugees are not privileged but inclusive. They apply to all: Muslim, Christian, Jew, Allawi, Druze, Baha’i — any group that shows itself to be persecuted.

If Trump wanted to do something in particular for Christians that would nonetheless comply with U.S. and international refugee law, he would have done better to focus on Iraq, where in 2014 the Islamic State expelled tens of thousands of Christians, along with the Iraqi Yazidi minority, from Mosul and surrounding Nineveh Province. It is clear from that event that both groups have a “well-founded fear of persecution” if they return home, language used in U.S. immigration law as a condition for being granted political asylum.

Even though Mosul’s re-conquest by the Iraqi government is supposed to happen within a few months, the Yazidis and Christians face a dilemma: Will it really be safe to go home? I have found, in talks with refugees in Irbil, Kurdistan, that they don’t think so. In part, that is because the Mosul experience was not an isolated incident but a continuation of more than a decade of persecution after the U.S.-led ouster of Saddam Hussein. In that time, the Christian population has shrunk from around 1.4 million to 350,000 because of unrelenting pogroms by both Sunni Muslim rebels and Shiite militias. The government has done next to nothing to protect beleaguered minorities.

Christians, along with Yazidis, should be given a choice of staying in Iraq or going into exile abroad. Muslims ought not to object to this granting of refugee status to Iraqi Christians and Yazidis; the same international “well-founded fear” standard would cover Muslims in similar situations.

At the same time, Trump could expand on his so-far sketchy ideas of doing something about the millions of Syrian refugees of all sects in the region.

But Trump is not speaking the language of international or even U.S. refugee standards or actually helping to ease the plight of refugees. He is simply grandstanding and using Christians as an extra in his bombastic movie.