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..
In the wake of the terror attacks in Paris, Republican leaders have called for new measures to improve the vetting of refugees applying for asylum from Syria and Iraq, and some, like Jeb Bush, have noted that Christian applicants pose a lower security risk and thus raise fewer issues.
Earlier this week, Obama dismissed any attempt to introduce a "religious test" for refugee applicants as "shameful," sparking a fresh round of partisan attacks in the blogosphere against Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., and Bush.
In my view, what's truly shameful is that the U.S. has been so slow to accept any Syrian refugees --- a problem that partly reflects excessive bureaucratic delays as well as the White House's apparent lack of engagement on this issue.
But let's narrow the discussion to focus on the debate over a "religious test" for refugees.
Yesterday, Speaker Paul Ryan introduced a bill that calls for more stringent vetting of refugees, but, according to the New York Times, "institutes no religious test." In other words, Muslim applicants will not be effectively excluded.
Meanwhile, President Obama's denunciation of a "religious test" for refugees conveniently ignores federal law, as well as the reality on the ground: Successful refugee applicants are overwhelming Muslim.
Here are the stats from the State Department Refugee Processing Center, as of Nov. 17, 2015:
Of 2,184 Syrian refugees admitted into the U.S. since the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011, only 53 (2.4 percent) have been Christians while 2098 (or 96 percent) have been Muslims.
Experts like Nina Shea have offered a number of reasons for the low percentage of Christian refugees admitted to the U.S., including the fact that they prefer to steer clear of UN-sponsored refugee camps out of fear that they could be singled out by extremists. The UN refugee program is the first stop in the application process.
Perhaps Jeb Bush had this unresolved problem in mind when he weighed in on the debate over security issues related to the refugee program. Bush did not propose a religious test. But he implied that persecuted Christians would not pose a security risk:
“There are no Christian terrorists in the Middle East,” he continued. “They’re persecuted, they’re religious minorities. We’ve had a duty as we’ve always had, and it’s a noble one, to be able to provide support across the world."
Asked by reporters to explain how immigration officials would establish the religious beliefs of applicants, Bush said it wouldn't be difficult. And that response produced a flurry of eyerolling.
Reacting to Bush's comment, MSNBC’s Benjy Sarlin concluded that the presidential hopeful wanted to fast-track the applications of Christian refugees, and that such an initiative would hand a "propaganda victory for ISIS.”
In fact, the religious background of refugee applicants is routinely collected as a matter of law. The purpose is not to exclude, but to establish their claims of persecution and prioritize those under greatest threat.
At National Review, Andrew McCarthy explains 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.
"Moreover, to qualify for asylum in the United States, the applicant must be a 'refugee' as defined by federal law. That definition (set forth in Section 1101(a)(42)(A) of Title , U.S. Code) also requires the executive branch to take account of the alien’s religion:
The term “refugee” means (A) any person who is outside any country of such person’s nationality … and who is unable or unwilling to return to … that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of … religion [among other things] …[.]"
The disingenuous attempt by the White House to challenge any reference to the refugees' religious beliefs allows an inequitable system to continue and ignores our own history of aiding persecuted religious minorities.
Remember the popular, high profile effort during the Cold War to aid the resettlement of Jewish emigres from the Soviet Union? That program marked the lessons learned frrm World War II, when Hitler's anti-Jewish policies were ignored until it was too late. In The Wall Street Journal, Robert Reilly connects that dark legacy to the present challenge posed by ISIS' campaign of genocide against religious minorities.
So why does our president, along with some of his partisan allies, frame an effort to protect the most vulnerable refugees as"shameful"?
Hard to say for sure. But one lesson is clear:
It is fine to downplay ISIS' campaign of religious cleansing of Iraqi and Syrian Christians. And it is fine to ignore the fact that very few of them will make it to the United States. But don't ever single them out for special attention, or suggest their religious beliefs make them less of a security threat. If you do, you will be accused of adding grist for the ISIS propagandists.