Posted on September 24, 2016 in Washington Watch

by James J. Zogby 

Elliott Abrams, a former Reagan and Bush Administration official and a former colleague on the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), has written an article "The United States Bars Christian, Not Muslim, Refugees From Syria". It is provocative, as its title suggests, but it is deeply flawed in its argument, its evidence, and its conclusions.  

Abrams begins by noting that of the more than ten thousand Syrian refugees admitted this past year, only 56 are Christian. Out of that single thread he weaves a whole cloth using unsubstantiated anecdotes, bad math and worse logic, with a touch of fabrication thrown in for good measure—quoting Nina Shea, another former USCIRF Commissioner, who boldly states that there is "de facto discrimination and a gross injustice" being committed [by the US] against Syrian Christians.  

Abrams frames his case around the assumption that around 10% of Syria's prewar population was Christian. That much is true. But then, without justification, he alleges that "somewhere between a half million and a million Syrian Christians have fled Syria". Since he presents no evidence for that claim, I can only speculate that Abrams may have taken the total number of Syrian refugees (between 4.5 to 5 million, with another 6 million Syrians internally displaced) and assumed that Christians must be 10% of that total. This is clearly unwarranted.

Specialists in the field point to several factors that Abrams either doesn't know or won't acknowledge because they would muddy up his case. In the first place, we simply do not know how many Christians have left Syria. Many, we are told by church leaders, have stayed because they have felt relatively secure in government controlled areas. Instead of uprooting their families and risking the loss of their properties and businesses, they have remained. There is also strong evidence that some Christians who are wealthier or who are professionals left Syria to join families abroad. Many others, we know, have settled in Christian areas of Lebanon, where they have family ties, and do not consider themselves refugees. After Jordan and Lebanon began tightening their borders, more recent Syrian refugees have taken advantage of Turkey's more porous borders and since Turkey keeps and does not share its registration data for refugees, we have no idea how many Christians have entered that country. The bottom line is that it is simply not possible to know the number of Christians who fled Syria.

Abrams' next argument is based on what he initially terms "a theory", but then acts as if it were established fact, "that the US takes refugee referrals from the UN refugee camps in Jordan and there are no Christians there [in the refugee camps in Jordan]". This "theory" supposedly accounts for the low number of Syrian Christians coming the US. To add weight to this argument, Abrams again quotes Shea who alleges that the reason Christians aren't in the Jordanian camps is because "they are preyed upon by other residents from the Sunni community...they are raped, abducted into slavery...It is extremely dangerous, there is not a single Christian in the Jordanian camps for Syrian refugees".

It is difficult to know what to make of Shea's horror stories of Christians being raped and abducted in the camps. What we do know is that Christians aren't in the camps and there are better reasons to explain this other than to assume fear. In the first place, only 15% of all Syrian refugees in Jordan are in the camps. While Jordan is not a preferred destination for Syrian Christians, those who have sought refuge in Jordan have gone to cities. The UN has registered Syrian Christians in Jordan by going to churches to seek them out. While Lebanon has apparently played host to the bulk of Syrian Christians, many of them have not sought to register as refugees. Those who have registered in Lebanon cannot be processed for visas to the US because the visa offices of US Embassy in Lebanon have been closed for the past few years for security reasons.

Another factor to consider here is that since 2012, the US has accepted over 100,000 Syrians on a variety of visas (work, student, family).  In addition, there were many Syrians who were already in the US on non-immigrant visas when the war broke out. When their visas expired, many were given permission to remain under a provision called Temporary Protected Stay (TPS). Since the US does not register visitors, students, or workers by religion, we do not know how many of these Syrians are Christian.

What we are left with is the fact that there are many reasons why the US hasn't processed a large number of Syrian Christians and it has nothing to do with discrimination by either the UN or the Obama Administration. More likely it is because they haven't fled the country in the numbers speculated by Abrams, they haven't registered with the UN as refugees, or many are already here in the US either with other forms of visas or TPS. And as for the argument that the US discriminates against Christians, consider the fact that of the 128,000 Iraqis who have been settled in the US in the past decade, 45,000 are Christians.  

Given all this, I am left to wonder why Abrams and company are beating this drum. It can't just be because they care about Christians. During the first 3 years of the Iraq war (which Abrams supported as a Bush Administration Deputy National Security Advisor), Iraq's Christian community was devastated, declining from a prewar 1.4 million to around 400,000 in 2008. Back then not a peep of concern was raised about the fate of Christians. Only now is the charge being leveled that this Administration is failing to protect vulnerable Christians. Could there be politics at work?

Abrams closes out his article urging support for the Religious Persecution Relief Act sponsored by Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas). Critical of both the UN and the Obama Administration, the Cotton bill proposes circumventing the UN refugee agency and creating a "fast track US review process" for Syrian religious minorities. The criticisms are unfair and unwarranted. It has always been the priority of the US to accept the most vulnerable. Despite the horrors that have been inflicted on Christians, Yazidis, and other minority religious communities in Iraq and Syria, it must also be acknowledged: that ISIS has most often targeted and murdered Sunni and Shia Muslims; that Shia militia have terrorized Sunnis; and that the victims of Assad's barrel bombs and chlorine gas have been Sunnis. Are these victims not vulnerable and worthy of consideration for refuge? Does it reflect our nation's professed values to begin to play sectarian or partisan politics with these victims of war?

I am a Christian of Arab descent and I care deeply about the fate of the Christians of the Middle East. For over a century they have either been exploited by groups in the West, when it served Western interest to do so, or callously ignored. I care about them too much to see them being used again.    

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the Arab American Institute. The Arab American Institute is a non-profit, nonpartisan national leadership organization that does not endorse candidates. 

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