Flawed refugee account plays politics with Syrian Christians

A Syrian man sits inside his tents at Ritsona refugee camp north of Athens, which hosts about 600 refugees and migrants. Petros Giannakouris / AP Photo
A Syrian man sits inside his tents at Ritsona refugee camp north of Athens, which hosts about 600 refugees and migrants. Petros Giannakouris / AP Photo

Elliott Abrams, a former Reagan and Bush administration official and a former colleague of mine on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), has written an article titled The United States Bars Christian, Not Muslim, Refugees From Syria. It is provocative and it is deeply flawed.

Mr Abrams begins by noting that of more than 10,000 Syrian refugees admitted this past year, only 56 are Christian. Out of that single thread he weaves a whole cloth using unsubstantiated anecdotes, bad maths and worse logic, with a touch of fabrication thrown in.

He frames his case around the assumption that about 10 per cent of Syria’s pre-war population was Christian. That much is true. But then 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 Mr Abrams has taken the total number of Syrian refugees (between 4.5 and 5 million, with another 6 million Syrians internally displaced) and assumed that Christians must be 10 per cent of that total.

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. There is also strong evidence that some Christians who are wealthier or who are professionals left Syria to join their 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. Since Turkey does not share its registration data for refugees, we have no idea how many Christians have entered that country.

Mr 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 [in those camps]”. This theory supposedly accounts for the low number of Syrian Christians coming to the US. Mr Abrams quotes another former USCIRF commissioner, Nina 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 these horror stories. What we do know is that Christians aren’t in the camps and there are better reasons to explain this than to assume fear. In the first place, only 15 per cent 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. 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 US visas because the visa offices of the US embassy in Lebanon have been closed for the past few years for security reasons.

Since 2012, the US has accepted over 100,000 Syrians on a variety of visas (work, student, family). Many Syrians 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 these people by religion, we don’t know how many are Christian.

What we are left with is 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 probably it is because they haven’t fled the country in the numbers speculated by Mr 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 that of the 128,000 Iraqis who have been settled in the US in the past decade, 45,000 are Christians.

I am left to wonder why Mr Abrams and others are beating this drum. It can’t just be because they care about Christians. During the first three years of the Iraq war, Iraq’s Christian community was devastated, declining from 1.4 million to about 400,000 in 2008. Back then not a peep of concern was raised about the fate of Christians. Only now is the charge being levelled that the Obama administration is failing to protect them. Could there be politics at work?

Despite the horrors that have been inflicted on Christians, Yazidis and other minority religious communities in Iraq and Syria, it must be acknowledged that ISIL has most often targeted and murdered Sunni and Shia Muslims; that Shia militia have terrorised Sunnis; and that the victims of Bashar Al Assad’s barrel bombs and chlorine gas have been Sunnis.

I am a Christian of Arab descent and I care deeply about Christians in 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.

Dr James Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa

Published: September 24, 2016 04:00 AM

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