Trump Says He Wants to Prioritize Christian Refugees. Middle Eastern Christians in the U.S. Respond. | Sojourners

Trump Says He Wants to Prioritize Christian Refugees. Middle Eastern Christians in the U.S. Respond.

A prayer book in Syriac at an Assyrian church in Chicago. Photo by Tania Karas.

President Donald Trump’s recent statements that he would prioritize Christian refugees coming to the United States set up one potential constitutional challenge to his Jan. 27 executive order temporarily barring citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries and cutting the U.S. refugee admissions program in half.

But it also rang hollow to some Middle Eastern Christians living in the U.S.. Some told Sojourners they find the travel ban's discrimination — and Trump's assertion that it's meant to keep out Muslims — contrary to Christian teachings.

"If you believe in Christian values, that is not how you treat people," said Mona Malik, an Assyrian activist whose family came to the U.S. from Baghdad when she was 9. "Between Trump's ban and his tweets and his rhetoric, he is allowing and promoting racism and bigotry. If you call yourself a Christian, you hold yourself arm's length from that."

Prioritizing Middle East Christians' resettlement at others' expense, she said, amounts to "putting an even bigger target on their back" because they could be viewed as traitorous collaborators with the West. Trump's promise, Malik added, also ignores the plight of other minorities, such as Yazidis and Shiite Muslims. The extremist group Islamic State has killed and tortured members of all those groups for their religious beliefs.

But the reaction to Trump’s statements among Assyrians living in the U.S. is far from uniform. Assyrians, nearly all of whom are Christian, are split between three churches: the Assyrian Church of the East, the Syriac Orthodox Church, and the Chaldean Catholic Church. Though they often self-identify by their churches, they're in fact one distinct ethnic group. They speak modern Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ.

Assyrian Christians in Iraq struggled under Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime. Their persecution — along with the persecution of other religious minorities — increased greatly in 2003 when the U.S. invasion left a vacuum of power. Tens of thousands fled. But Assyrians' exodus accelerated even more when the Islamic State captured northern Iraq in 2014. The extremist group forced Christians to either convert to Islam or pay a tax. Otherwise they would be killed.

In October, a U.S.-led coalition launched its offensive to retake northern Iraq. Historically Assyrian towns in the Nineveh Plains were freed after two years under ISIS control. But the damage to Iraq's Christian community may be irreparable. Assyrians there number fewer than 500,000, down from about 1.5 million in 2003.

Those who left face an impossible choice: they can return to their destroyed homeland, where they may never be safe, or seek permanent havens in other countries.

Meanwhile, Assyrians in the United States struggle with how to respond. Their community's longstanding persecution at the hands of Arab Muslims helps explain why some support Trump's travel ban.

Juliana Taimoorazy, founder of the Chicago-based Iraqi Christian Relief Council and fellow at the Philos Project, said the ban's rollout was "imperfect, but I appreciate what he's trying to do." The previous two administrations, she said, have ignored or diminished Christians' plight, while Trump's aides reached out to groups like hers from the first days of his presidential campaign.

Taimoorazy, a Christian who came to the U.S. as a refugee from Iran in 1991, supports more stringent vetting for all refugees, as well as Christian prioritization. But at the same time, "if the doors flung open for Christians to leave the Middle East, chances are they will. And that is what I call a soft genocide," said Taimoorazy, who advocates for a multiethnic, self-governed province for Assyrians and other minorities in Iraq's Nineveh Plain, east of Mosul.

Others say while they appreciate Trump’s show of support for Christians, they disagree with his approach.

Reine Hanna, a U.S.-born Assyrian Christian whose parents emigrated from Iraq, visited the country last month as part of her work with the Assyrian Universal Alliance Foundation (AUAF) in Lincolnwood, a Chicago suburb.

It was devastating, Hanna said, to witness the effect of a generation's worth of persecution and outward migration. Entire Assyrian villages sit empty save for a handful of residents too old or stubborn to leave. But she can't support Christian prioritization or wholesale resettlement.

"The solution is not to give us visas to come to the U.S.," said Hanna, explaining a common sentiment among Assyrian Americans. "That's just fast-forwarding what ISIS wants anyway, which is our eradication from our land."


Reine Hanna looking at photos from her trip to Iraq last month to aid displaced Assyrians. Photo by Tania Karas.

"The best way to help us is to help us stay there," she added, as she watched videos of displaced Assyrian schoolchildren staying in Iraqi Kurdistan. The AUAF partners with the Assyrian Aid Society of America on humanitarian projects to aid displaced Assyrians and rebuild their villages.

Indeed, the seven countries affected by Trump's travel ban — Syria, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia and Libya — top a worldwide watch list of nations where Christians are most targeted for their beliefs, according to Open Doors USA, a nonprofit that advocates for persecuted Christians.

The group's president and CEO, David Curry, has called for a needs-based refugee resettlement approach where all faiths are treated equally.

"There's lots of ways we can help people without excluding them and saying, 'Christians only,' and putting a religious test on who we let in this country," Curry said.

Whether Trump will or can actually prioritize Middle East Christians remains to be seen, as several court cases, including one examining religious liberty implications, are currently pending.