For many American Christians, the Paris attacks have revealed a conflict between two priorities: the cause of persecuted Middle Eastern Christians and a hard line on security.
Following reports that one of the Paris attackers had a Syrian passport and had allegedly registered as a refugee, multiple GOP presidential candidates called for bans on Syrian refugees. On Monday, multiple GOP governors joined in. Considering the United States has absorbed fewer than 2,000 Syrians, this may seem like political posturing, but Congress is set later this year to debate funding for another 10,000 whom President Obama has said he wants to admit.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said Sunday that only Christians, not Muslims, should be allowed in. Ben Carson said accepting any Syrian refugees requires a “suspension of intellect.” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Donald Trump and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal also said the country shouldn’t take any more Syrian refugees.
Over the weekend, prominent evangelist Franklin Graham repeated calls he’s made before to scrutinize Muslim refugees.
“I’ve said this before, and many people criticized me for saying it. We must reform our immigration policies in the United States. We cannot allow Muslim immigrants to come across our borders unchecked while we are fighting this war on terror. If we continue to allow Muslim immigration, we’ll see much more of what happened in Paris — it’s on our doorstep,” he posted on his Facebook page.
The question is particularly complicated for conservative Christians, who have become increasingly concerned in the last few years about the plight of Christians in the Middle East and simultaneously are often the most guarded about border security and increased immigration.
“This will cross-pressure the evangelical base,” said Brett O’Donnell, a political consultant who has advised GOP presidential candidates on social conservative and evangelical issues. “There is a tension here in a lot of their circles about — should we support taking any Syrians when it seems like the right thing to do? But their position on immigration is so hard line at the same time.”
Catholic bishops and some key evangelical groups have been framing the status of Christians in Syria, Iraq and Egypt as catastrophic and have been lobbying the United Nations and the U.S. government — which determine what groups are seen as the most persecuted and in need of shelter — to do more for them. Some organizations have focused on fundraising to help ease the conflict in those countries while others have shifted to raising money to try to fund resettlement.
The questions of what role religion, specifically, plays in the plight of millions of Middle Eastern refugees and which groups around the world seeking relief qualify as most persecuted are intensely divisive. Many conservative Christians believe Christians are being discriminated against by not getting special migration status while others disagree, saying Middle Eastern countries are in a complicated war with many victims.
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, made news earlier this fall — before the Paris attacks — when he said Syrian refugees should be barred from the country. “I can’t support a policy that would allow a jihadist pipeline into the United States,” he told Fox News.
Kevin Appleby, director of the Office of Migration and Refugee Policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, predicted a “big battle” in the coming weeks over funding for resettlement of various refugees, including Syrians. Most of the groups that contract with the government to resettle refugees are faith-based, and Appleby said the Catholic Church is the largest, helping about a quarter of those who come.
The question of refugee resettlement vs. security “has just been heightened” because of the Paris attacks, he said, “and candidates pick up on that.”
Asked to predict if debate this week will change Christians’ perspective, Appleby said, “If we educate them, saner heads will prevail and people can make the distinction between a terrorist and a peace-abiding refugee.”
Pastors who have preached about the tension for Christians cite theology — a call to both welcome the stranger and protect their own families. Data show Christians are very divided on how to respond to the refugee crisis. A Pew Research Center poll this fall asked Americans’ views on the U.S. decision to accept more refugees. It showed 42 percent of Protestants approved while 54 percent disapproved. Fifty-nine percent of Catholics approved while 38 percent disapproved.
Johnnie Moore is a prominent evangelical author who works with nonprofits and donors on how to help Middle Eastern Christians and is teaming up with Glenn Beck to raise millions to get dozens of Christian refugees into Eastern Europe. Despite his focus on saving Christian refugees, he called it “entirely reasonable” to pause immigration from Syria to review the process of screening applicants.
Evangelicals, he said, “are living in a tension” between compassion for refugees generally and concern about terrorism. “People are on two sides of the coin. … I think this will solidify immigration as the issue, and the candidate who benefits most from that is [Donald] Trump.”