Open the door for persecuted Iraqi Christians

Iraqi Christians, who fled violence in the northern city of Mosul after Islamic State militants took control of the area, arrive for Mass at a Catholic church in the Ashti camp in Irbil. (Safin Hamed/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)
Iraqi Christians, who fled violence in the northern city of Mosul after Islamic State militants took control of the area, arrive for Mass at a Catholic church in the Ashti camp in Irbil. (Safin Hamed/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

The recent long-distance debate between GOP presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) and President Obama over the fate of Syrian and Iraqi refugees — and especially Christians — was both unseemly and misguided. Both are wrong about why Christians should or should not be singled out for special protection.

Of course, the Texas senator’s suggestion that Christians should be accepted into the United States as refugees, in exclusive preference over Muslims, was, as Obama called it, “shameful.” But Obama’s contention that accepting persecuted Christians would amount to unacceptable “religious tests to our compassion” was also off base.

In any case, I have a proposal to break the logjam. Set a priority and help at least some refugees in particular need: Offer asylum to Christians who were expelled by the Islamic State more than a year ago from and around Mosul in northern Iraq.

Such an offer, which could also be made to the equally threatened, smaller Yazidi minority from the same area, would stand firmly on the grounds of international law. The U.N. definition of a refugee is someone who is outside his or her homeland and unwilling to return because of “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

These refugees — at least 30,000 of them are now stuck in nearby Kurdistan — fit into an exceptional refugee category for at least a couple of reasons: They were expelled solely because of their religion, and they have been persecuted for a dozen years, ever since the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. They can never go home.

But Obama seems exceptionally myopic toward these circumstances. He conflates all kinds of afflictions of war equally and contends that no beleaguered religious group should be favored over another. “That’s not American,” he said.

He went so far as to cite Pope Francis as a supporter of this argument, noting that when the pontiff spoke to Congress in September and asked the United States to help Middle East refugees, he didn’t mention any religion by name.

But the pope thinks Christians in Iraq and Syria actually do find themselves in a special situation — not because they are Christians but because they are a people under genocidal threat.

During his visit to Bolivia in July, Francis labeled Christian persecution “a form of genocide.” Pointedly, in April, on the 100th anniversary of the genocide of Armenian Christians, the pope took to task the complacent response of world governments. “All who are heads of state and of international organizations are called to oppose such crimes with a firm sense of duty, without ceding to ambiguity or compromise,” he said.

If that wasn’t clear enough, the Vatican co-authored a statement to the U.N. Human Rights Council warning of “a serious existential threat from the so-called Islamic State (Daesh) and al-Qaeda, and affiliated terrorist groups, which . . . creates the risk of complete disappearance for the Christians.”

Contrast the Vatican’s view with the analysis of Obama’s U.N. ambassador, Samantha Power, who in September tossed Christians and Yazidis into a blender of afflicted groups that included Sunnis, Shiites and gay people. “So while [the Islamic State] is targeting very specific minority groups as such, its monstrous ideology applies well beyond ethnic, national and religious groups as such to anybody who doesn’t share its worldview,” she said.

That kind of statement makes Obama a kind of “Old Woman Who Lives in a Shoe” on human rights — a president whose administration has so many persecutions to deal with, he doesn’t know what to do.

It’s true that opening the door to Iraqi Christians would leave many other beleaguered civilians to face running wars in Iraq and Syria. But an inability to do everything for everyone ought not be a reason to do nothing at all.

Obama and other Western leaders seeking to provide sanctuary to the victims of Islamic State brutality should start with the Christians from Iraq. And Obama need not worry that, by accepting them, he would be applying a religious test to asylum seekers. Be assured: The Islamic State beat him to it.

Daniel Williams is author of Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East, which will be published this month.

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