WASHINGTON — Only weeks before Christmas, 153 Iraqi Christians will be welcomed to their new home in Slovakia, courtesy of an unlikely team of Americans moved by their plight.
Nina Shea, an expert on religious-freedom issues at Washington’s Hudson Institute, hopes to be on hand to meet the Iraqis as they deplane from their chartered flight.
“Seed money for this came from Hollywood producer Mark Burnett. The resettlement was funded by contributions to Glenn Beck’s Mercury One Nazarene Fund,” Shea told the Register.
Shea further noted that Rev. Johnnie Moore, the author of Defying ISIS: Preserving Christianity in the Place of Its Birth, and Joseph Assad, a security expert — both under contract to the Hudson Institute — helped arrange the airlift.
The unlikely group of collaborators might raise some eyebrows, but this private effort marks their growing frustration with the limited options available to Christians who have fled their homes because of wartime violence and religious persecution in the Middle East and now seek to find safe haven in the West.
The particular group of Iraqis assisted by Shea are internally displaced persons (IDP) -- those who have not left their country, and so have no legal recourse for resettlement in a foreign land. Hundreds of thousands are thus in limbo, surviving day to day with the help of relatives, fellow believers and church-affiliated charities.
"These now essentially stateless Christians are very needy-- and all but forgotten," Shea explained.
"The United National High Command for Refugees doesn't resettle them and they're not part of European Union quotas. But any country can admit anyone they wish," and she hopes that more countries and private groups will work together to replicate her initiative.
Meanwhile, many hundreds of thousands of Syrian Christians who have been forced out of their country also face a bleak, uncertain future.
A scant 53 Syrian Christians have been admitted to the U.S. for resettlement since the civil war began in 2011, according to the Refugee Processing Center. That number represents just over 2% of the total number of Syrians accepted, 2,184, though Christians accounted for 10% of Syria’s population before the war broke out.
“Syrian Christians want to come to the U.S. But there is no expedited status for them,” Maronite Bishop Gregory Mansour of the Eparchy of St. Maron in Brooklyn told the Register.
In late November, the State Department’s Refugee Processing Center released data on the 132 Syrian refugees that have arrived in the U.S. since the Paris terror attacks, and all were Sunni Muslims. Not one was a religious minority.
Yet Syria’s brutal civil war has been accompanied by the rise of the Islamic State and its campaign to cleanse the region of vulnerable religious minorities, who have faced beheadings, rapes and exile from their ancestral communities.
Overall, international relief groups estimate that 4 million Syrians are on the move, crossed over to neighboring countries, like Lebanon, or joined the flood of migrants headed for Europe.Millions more have left their homes, but remain within Syria.
The crowded camps sponsored by the United Nations’ High Command for Refugees (UNHCR) no longer have sufficient emergency supplies, and security is spotty.
Experts in the field report that Syrian Christians rarely seek help at the U.N. camps. Many fear they will be targeted, and they find shelter with relatives or sleep in churches and monasteries. However, the UNHCR also selects candidates for resettlement in the U.S. If Christians do not apply with the U.N., they cannot take part in the process.
Some Church leaders have sought to change the U.N.'s policy to help address the concerns of Christian refugees.
"Local Christian leaders, Melkite Archbishop John Darwish and Syriac Orthodox Metropolitan Yostinos Boulos Safar, made efforts to get the UN to register the refugees outside the camps so that they could receive help," said John Newton, press officer for Aid to the Church in Need in England. Despite negotiations, the U.N. has decided to restrict registration to the camps.
"This means de facto international aid is being denied Christian refugees from Syria," said Newton. "This is scandalous, but the local Church is stepping in and feeding, clothing, and sheltering these people where the international community has turned its back on them."
Some Church leaders and experts like Nina Shea contend that Washington’s reliance on the UNHCR has created a structural impediment to religious minorities who seek to apply for resettlement in the U.S.
“We have been pleading with the Obama administration to help them, not because Christians are more worthy than Sunnis, but because they are not in the refugee camps and the U.N. pipeline,” said Bishop Mansour, who hopes the White House will work with religious leaders to develop an alternative pathway for minority groups, including Yazidis.
As Shea sees it, “The only way to address this problem is for the U.S. to use its leverage as UNHCR’s largest donor.”
“We accept more refugees than all the other countries combined. We can put pressure on our elected officials to drop this apathetic response by the State Department” that effectively bars religious minorities, said Shea.
In the United States, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of Migration and Refugee Services boasts the largest network for refugee resettlement in the nation. The Catholic agency handles more than 20% of all refugee cases and does not discriminate based on creed.
Bill Canny, the executive director of the USCCB Office of Migration, acknowledged that Syrian Christians have been targeted by the Islamic State, but said the agency has not specifically advocated on their behalf.
Canny emphasized that Syrians seeking to emigrate to the U.S. “need to present themselves to the UNHCR.”
“If there are impediments, I would like to know about it.”
Kevin Appleby, director of the Office of Migration Policy and Public Affairs for the USCCB, noted two additional issues.
First, Appleby explained that the pool of Syrians seeking refugee status include Muslims facing equally serious challenges, and so a Christian may not be viewed as the most-vulnerable candidate seeking admission to the U.S. Not only must applicants demonstrate what U.S. law describes as a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or a political group,” additional considerations, such as a serious medical problem that requires advanced treatment, can also affect the outcome.
Second, he noted that Christian leaders in the region are conflicted about whether their flocks should leave the region.
“Some Church leaders don’t want them resettled,” said Appleby.
Instead, they want to see their flocks find protection “in the region and go home when the conflict is over. We want to be respectful of what the bishops in the region are saying,” he said.
But even if Christians would prefer to return to their homes in Syria, is that still an option? They have no military defense, and most of their properties and businesses have either been destroyed by wartime violence or appropriated by the Islamic State.
“Christians are in a vice. The opponents of Assad perceive them as collaborators, because, under Assad, Christians and other minorities were protected,” said Appleby.
“They are targeted by both sides. They don’t trust that their information [at the U.N. camps] won’t be given” to the wrong people.
Asked to discuss other options, Appleby said the U.S. government could establish an alternative path for the resettlement of Christians.
“We could take them directly if we wanted to. We could create our own category, designate them as a population of special concern and bypass the U.N.”
Michael La Civita, a spokesman for the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, one of the primary Church-affiliated agencies helping displaced Christians in the region, agreed that the rapid advance of the Islamic State has caught Church leaders “in a bind.”
“As the ‘father’ of their local Church, they don’t want to see their family broken up, but they understand the fundamental right of people to go and search for a life of safety and prosperity where they can thrive,” La Civita told the Register.
To outsiders, the need for flight may appear clear-cut. But this community has faced similar threats over the long sweep of history, and their departure now will help fulfill the Islamic State’s mission to eradicate Christianity from territory under its control.
Christians who are under threat include “the descendants of the families who were first received into the faith by the apostles after Pentecost,” noted La Civita.
“To leave what is the Church’s hometown is like a surrender.”
The unfolding tragedy has prompted many Church leaders in the region to beseech the West to stop the Islamic State and find solutions that will protect vulnerable religious minorities.
Thus far, the U.S.-led military alliance in the region has failed to contain the Islamic State.
In October, during testimony before England’s House of Lords, Melkite-Greek Catholic Archbishop Jean-Clement of Aleppo spoke of “savage executions by ISIS” and recounted how, “just four days ago, three Christians were killed in north Syria” after they resisted demands that they convert.
“We are forgotten in Syria and elsewhere, for political reasons,” stated Archbishop Jeanbart, who was described as distraught in a Catholic Herald commentary.
Lord David Alton, a member of the House of Lords and a leading voice in Britain on religious persecution in the Middle East, underscored the difficulties faced by Syrian Church leaders.
“The bishops in the region … have requested help in some individual cases [of resettlement]. They obviously remain fearful that their communities are being uprooted and that if their people leave for the West they will never return,” Lord Alton stated in an email to the Register.
“Meanwhile, those uprooted communities have become desperate that there will never be an end to the interminable fighting, making it impossible to stay.”
Like the U.S., the United Kingdom also relies on the UNHCR to select the initial pool of candidates for resettlement, and Lord Alton echoed reports that most Christians stay away from the U.N. camps.
These reports confirm Nina Shea’s growing concern about Washington’s reliance on the U.N.
She noted that the private effort to bring the 153 displace Iraqi Christians to Slovakia, with the approval of the local government, could inspire smiilar efforts in America.
“I hired a contractor who has experience in the area. He went in and vetted the Christians who wanted to leave for the Slovakian government.”
The U.S. bishops have not broached this idea, at least not publicly. But that might change if they determine that Christian applicants aren’t getting a fair shake.
The existing U.S. program has drawn intense public scrutiny as Americans express fears that the newcomers could pose a security risk. IS has already vowed to infiltrate the flood of refugees seeking help in the West, and one militant involved in the Paris terror attacks reportedly posed as a refugee, though experts are still sifting through the evidence.
Some GOP presidential hopefuls have raised security concerns about the Syrians arriving in the U.S., while noting that Christians would not pose such a risk. In response, President Barack Obama lashed out and said it would be “shameful” to give priority to some religious groups.
“That’s not American. That’s not who we are. We don’t have religious tests to our compassion,” said the president during a Nov. 16 press conference.
Yet federal law already permits the U.S. government to give special attention to vulnerable groups under threat because of their religion.
At National Review, Andrew McCarthy explained that, under “federal law, the executive branch is expressly required to take religion into account in determining who is granted asylum.
“Under the provision governing asylum (Section 1158 of Title 8, U.S. Code), an alien applying for admission ‘must establish that … religion [among other things] … was or will be at least one central reason for persecuting the applicant,’” said McCarthy in a Nov. 18 article.
Asked to comment on the controversy that erupted over proposals to give priority to Syrian Christians, Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, a leading advocate for outreach to immigrants, emphasized that Washington should admit the most vulnerable candidates.
But Archbishop Wenski also dismissed critics who attacked proposals to aid Syria’s beleaguered religious minorities.
“What is happening to Christians in the Middle East has been described by Pope Francis as genocide,” Archbishop Wenski told the Register.
“We shouldn’t turn a blind eye to that. We should protect the most vulnerable populations, and Christians from Iraq and Syria fit that description.”
Editor: This article was updated on December 14.
Joan Frawley Desmond is senior editor of the Register.