In the USA a terrible tragedy is happening. A nation that was founded by Christians fleeing religious persecution is tearing itself apart over its new president ordering the US refugee system to prioritise religious minorities fleeing persecution. Yet perhaps the greatest tragedy faces Christian refugees fleeing genocide in the Middle East. They now face the painful discovery that many they might have assumed would support them in their hour of need - their fellow Christians - are in fact those most vehemently opposed to this policy. Can you imagine how they feel?
It was in 2004, a year after US-led coalition forces toppled Saddam Hussein, that systematic attacks on Iraqi churches and Christians began, including abductions and murder of senior clergy. In 2007 two lawyers experienced in genocide investigations argued in an academic paper that what was by then happening to Christians in Iraq constituted “genocide”. The start of the Syrian civil war in 2011 not only allowed Islamic State of Iraq to spread to Syria, but also created a multiplicity of jihadi groups, many funded by the Saudis, which aimed to establish a radical Islamic state. Some of these groups have specifically threatened or targeted Christians. Yet these are the “rebels” the previous US government was seeking to engage with. Let us be clear, it is not just IS that has been targeting Christians and other minorities such as the Yazidis, it is other “rebel” groups as well.
It is indisputable that Christians in Iraq and Syria have been facing crimes against humanity. That is why since 2003 at least half of Iraq’s Christians have fled the country. In Syria it is thought more than a quarter of the Christians have fled since 2011.
So what has been the West’s response to this? There have been none of the mass demonstrations we have seen in the past fortnight. Western governments when pushed have made public statements, but done little in response to help refugees fleeing the Middle East. In fact, Christians have actually been pushed to the back of the queue.
Despite US Secretary of State John Kerry finally conceding in March 2016 that Christians, Yazidis and other minorities were facing genocide, not only did the US refugee policies not prioritise those groups, but also the proportion of Syrian Christians accepted actually fell last year to one half of one percent. Much of the blame for this lies with the UN to whom both the UK and USA outsource their selection of refugees – although the US also takes refugees directly.
However, the US government was far from blameless. In 2015 Barnabas Fund set up its Operation Safe Havens (OSH) programme to help Christians fleeing genocide who needed to leave the Middle East. Our negotiating team, which included a former member of the UK House of Lords, spoke with a number of Western governments to seek visas for Syrian and Iraqi Christians. Australia was sympathetic and to date has taken over 1,048 refugees through our OSH programme, Poland took in 160, others went to Czech Republic, Canada and Brazil. But the US government made it extremely clear they would not even consider taking in explicitly Christian refugees, even though they were being specifically targeted in Iraq and Syria.
It is not just in the refugee sphere that Western nations have abandoned Middle Eastern Christians. Western foreign policy has largely pulled back from engagement in countries such as Syria. The space they have vacated has been filled by countries like Russia, which has now revived its claim to be the protector of eastern Christians. Whilst it clearly suits President Putin’s popularity at home to be seen standing up for Orthodox Christians, the reality on the ground is that virtually no other nation has done so.
Now, at least in the refugee sphere, America’s new president has sought to do so. Yet Christian organisations are campaigning against this, claiming it is a “Muslim ban”. Yet the executive order does not mention “Muslim”, “Islam” or any particular religion. Nor does it name any country. It temporarily suspends visas from a pre-existing list of “countries of concern” compiled the Obama administration: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Moreover, by a very large margin proportionately more Christians than Muslims have fled from both Iraq and Syria.
These claims of a “Muslim ban” play precisely into the hands of extremists who want to say that countries such as Iran, Iraq and Syria are “Islamic countries” when in fact their Christian communities have existed there since before the arrival of Islam. Meanwhile Libya is an example of a country which had a Christian community from the first century (Mark 15:21; Acts 2:10; 11:20; 13:1 Cyrene was in modern Libya) which was later eliminated following the early Islamic invasions. The same fate now appears to face the ancient Christian communities in Iraq and Syria as they are facing genocide from jihadist groups.
There is a serious danger that some Christian organisations are allowing partisan anti-Trump sentiment to colour their judgement on this issue, to the detriment of Christians fleeing genocide in the Middle East. Whatever they feel on other issues about President Trump, this is a time when they must speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves (Proverbs 31:8).