Joan Frawley Desmond, is the Register’s senior editor. She is an award-winning journalist widely published in Catholic, ecumenical and secular media. A graduate of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family, she lives with her family in California..
WASHINGTON—On Monday, President Trump issued a revised version of his controversial executive order — dubbed a “travel ban” — that restricts immigration and refugee applicants from Muslim-majority countries linked to terrorism.
The new executive order removes Iraq from the list of countries where many applicants now face 90-day delays in the issuing of travel documents and access to refugee processing: Sudan, Iran, Somalia, Yemen, Syria and Libya. Many refugees from these countries will face longer waits.
Religious freedom activists, who have pressed Washington to allow more Christians from the region to enter the U.S., were disappointed to learn that Trump had removed language that gave preferential treatment to persecuted religious minorities. Last year, Secretary of State John Kerry described the Islamic State’s tactics against Christians and other religious minorities as a campaign of “genocide.”
“Victims of genocide must be given priority, otherwise the designation of genocide is a meaningless game of semantics,” Father Benedict Kiely, a Catholic pastor in Vermont and an advocate for persecuted Christians in the Middle East who founded Nasarean.org, a charity that raises funds for them.
“It may seem politically incorrect to prioritize a specific group or groups, however, given the lessons of history, I wonder what prioritization might have done in 1938 for the Jews of Europe?” he told the Register.
The decision to drop any preference for Christian refugees from the region underscored the political sensitivity of this issue.
In January, Trump provoked a firestorm when he initially confirmed his plans to help beleaguered religious minorities.
At the time, he echoed the concerns of many U.S. Christian and Catholic leaders, who had expressed frustration with the Obama administration’s failure to help vulnerable victims of religious intolerance.
During an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, the president said that Christians had suffered “more” that other groups from sectarian violence, “so we are going to help them.”
But the offer of assistance was tarnished by the president’s restrictions on other refugees and immigrants from Muslim-majority countries — a policy that appeared to pit one religious group against another.
“A broad array of clergy members has strongly denounced Mr. Trump’s order as discriminatory, misguided and inhumane,” the New York Times reported at the time.
“Outrage has also come from some of the evangelical, Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant leaders who represent the churches most active in trying to aid persecuted Christians.”
Bishop Joe Vásquez, the chairman of the committee on migration for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the Times: “We believe in assisting all, regardless of their religious beliefs.”
The American Civil Liberties Union, among other activist groups, has filed suit against the federal government. In a post on the ACLU's website, David Cole, its legal director argued that the executive order violates the 'clearest command of the Establishment Clause.'”
Looking ahead, it is not clear whether the botched rollout of the first executive order will doom future attempts to help Christian refugees and displaced persons who have suffered at the hands of the Islamic State and await an uncertain future, as the terrorist group fights to hold onto territory in Iraq and Syria.
The revised exeuctive order sought to defend the president's efforts against accusations of religious discrimination.
“Executive Order 13769 did not provide a basis for discriminating for or against members of any particular religion. … That order was not motivated by animus toward any religion, but was instead intended to protect the ability of religious minorities — whoever they are and wherever they reside — to avail themselves of the USRAP in light of their particular challenges and circumstances,” read the new language.
While the initial executive order, issued Jan. 27, prohibited refugee resettlement for 120 days and immigration from the seven Muslim-majority countries for 90 days, among other restrictions, the new order features important changes designed to strengthen the administration's case in legal challenges to the president's immigration and refugee resettlement policies.
Meanwhile, advocates for religious minorities will press the White House to craft a new policy that will help more applicants from underrepresented groups enter the pipeline for refugee resettlement in the U.S.
“There’s a dire need for President Trump to issue a separate executive order — one specifically aimed to help the genocide survivors of ISIS in Iraq and Syria,” Nina Shea, the director of the Washington-based Center for Religious Freedom of the Hudson Institute, told the Register.
“The U.S. needs to help the Christians, Yazidis and others of the smallest religious minorities, whom ISIS targets with beheadings, crucifixions, rape, torture and sexual enslavement.”
Over the past two years, Shea has raised the alarm about security problems in United Nations-sponsored camps for Syrian refugees that have reportedly discouraged Christians from applying for asylum to the U.S. Though Christians once comprised 10-8% of Syria’s population, only a tiny percentage of this demographic has been able to enter the country since the outbreak of civil war in their country back in 2011.
“One year ago, on March 17, 2016, ISIS was officially designated as responsible for this ‘genocide’ by the State Department,” Shea noted.
But she charged that the UN had effectively “marginalize[d] these minorities, not only from Syrian refugee resettlement referrals, but from other UN programs substantially funded by the U.S.
What should happen now?
“The American people, especially the churches,” said Shea, “should be pressing for this.”