from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Saving Middle Eastern Christians

November 17, 2015

Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

In remarks yesterday from Turkey, President Obama called a refugee policy that singled out Middle Eastern Christians for help "shameful."

I don’t agree. Middle Eastern Christians (and other minorities, such as the Yezidis) face exceptional violence and discrimination, and deserve special treatment. That is not an argument for barring Muslim refugees, just a realistic assessment of the risks Christians face. I made the argument first in an article in The Weekly Standard a month ago entitled "Why Do We Not Save Christians?" Given the President’s comment that helping Christians would be "shameful," I wrote in the Standard again today in an article called "Obama’s ’Shameful’ Policy Toward Middle Eastern Christians."

Here is an excerpt:

The Obama refugee program has simply ignored the plight of such religious minorities, treating them no better than Muslims despite the obvious fact that their own situation is far worse.

Why is it worse? Because Muslims can find easier and safer refuge in neighboring Muslim-majority countries such as Jordan and Turkey. Because the UN’s refugee camps, run by the high commissioner for refugees, are almost entirely Muslim and Christians do not feel safe in them. Because the U.S. refugee program accepts refugees mostly from those camps, where Christian refugees fear to live. Because there are no efforts to eliminate Muslims in the Middle East, while there are efforts to demonize, penalize, and convert Christians—and (according to the U.S. Holocaust Museum) there are genocidal attacks on the Yezidi minority.

The president’s argument is that distinguishing the cases of Muslim and Christian refugees would be “shameful.” As a question of national security, that is a difficult argument to sustain: in the United States and Western Europe, Christian refugees have not become terrorists and it’s a simple fact that their admission does not present the same security risk. That does not mean no Muslim refugees should be admitted, but it does suggest that an adamant refusal to distinguish among refugees on religious lines is illogical. The 1930s provide a useful comparison: would it have been “shameful” for the United States to provide special help to Jewish refugees, who were the targets of special persecution and genocide? Or was it instead “shameful” to refuse such help?

This debate will continue, but meanwhile minority communities in Syria and Iraq are targeted for violence, forced conversions, and death. Our refugee programs should acknowledge these horrible facts--and do more to help them when they flee.