The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump promised he would protect persecuted Christians. But he’s sending Christians back to Iraq.

Friends and family view a bus outside the U.S. Detention and Deportation Center in Detroit on Sunday. A mass immigration and deportation sweep and arrest of dozens of Chaldeans in southeastern Michigan by U.S. immigration officials prompted the protest outside the detention center. (Gus Burns/The Ann Arbor News via AP)

Dozens of Iraqi Christians were rounded up by immigration authorities in Detroit this week, separated from their families and are about to be deported even though they have lived in the United States for decades. I have one question: Where is the outcry from my fellow Christians, especially those who view much of the world through the lens of Christian persecution?

I don’t think this is a cut-and-dry case. I don’t think these individuals were rounded up because they are Christian. I know immigration authorities say they have criminal records. Sending them back to Iraq is not an automatic death sentence, but being a Christian in Iraq is hard.

If you are a Christian, you should be deeply troubled by the deportation of your sisters and brothers from Detroit. Because persecution is real — and it has little to do with some of the silly issues that American Christians complain about so easily.

Our president — elected with the overwhelming support of white evangelicals — has repeatedly pledged to champion the cause of persecuted Christians, especially those from the Middle East. Yet in this case, his policies could inadvertently contribute to the persecution of Christians.

Many of these immigrants fear for their safety if they are sent back to Iraq. While it’s possible to live — and even thrive — as a Christian in Iraq, many Assyrians and Chaldeans have known immense hardship because of their faith. Many of them were marginalized by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, which is why some of those now facing deportation came to the United States.

Christian persecution intensified after the U.S. invasion in 2003 and the sectarian war that followed. When the Islamic State swept onto the scene in 2014, they targeted Christians and other minorities for extermination, prompting the House of Representatives and the State Department to recognize these groups as victims of genocide. Christians are a tiny fraction of the total population, probably less than 1 percent, and they are not allowed to share their faith with non-Christians.

The immigration sweep in Detroit took place after Trump’s executive order on refugees and immigration, which was signed in March. The revised version removed Iraq from the list of Muslim-majority nations affected by the order — but only after Iraq agreed to U.S. demands to allow the deportation of Iraqi citizens from America.

Yes, they may be legally deportable. But none of this means the Department of Homeland Security is required to deport them. Many committed their crimes decades ago and served their time.

Some face deportation for minor crimes. One man’s crime was reportedly letting someone else drive a car he had rented. Another is now being detained for marijuana possession more than 20 years ago.

Yes, the rule of law matters. Yes, people should face the consequences of their actions. These Iraqis who’ve long lived in America have. But what about mercy? What about paying your debt and getting a new start, with your family by your side?

Immigration and deportation are not merely policy “issues.” They’re about people, those who have put down deep roots and made new lives for themselves. They are about to be separated from their families, driven from America — the only home they’ve known for decades — and forced to live in Iraq, a country where many Christians have known persecution, a country those about to be deported can barely remember.

Many of my Christian friends in Iraq have been driven from their homes. Their towns have been destroyed. Yet they have had a lifetime to learn how to navigate the complexities of being a Christian in Iraq. How are those about to be deported — who have grown up in America and don’t have that same experience — supposed to fare?

When Trump unveiled his first executive order on refugees and immigration in January, he promised to help persecuted Christians. His actions may have unintended consequences in the opposite direction, causing unnecessary hardship for at least one group of Christians. Their deportation will needlessly disrupt lives, tear apart their families and leave them vulnerable.

Many of my fellow Christians have showed up to serve persecuted minorities in Iraq. But the front lines aren’t just in some war zone “over there.” The front lines are where we live. They’re in places like Portland, Washington and Detroit. If the suffering of our friends matters in Iraq, then their suffering matters in Detroit — no matter what our political affiliation may be.

It’s not too late to change course. Trump can direct the Department of Homeland Security to exercise its discretion to not deport Iraqi Christians and other minorities, especially if their deportation puts them at risk of persecution. Christians who have the ear of the president, including his vice president and his evangelical advisory council, could put pressure on him to change his stance.

Some of my evangelical friends — Ann Voskamp, Ed Stetzer, the staff at World Relief — are already speaking out on behalf of refugees and vulnerable communities from the Middle East. But more of us need to speak out and show up on our own front lines with tangible acts of love.

Will the church stand with its Iraqi Christian sisters and brothers? Will we put a commitment to love ahead of party affiliation or the pursuit of power? I hope so. Our witness depends on it.

Jeremy Courtney is chief executive of Preemptive Love Coalition, working on the front lines in Iraq and Syria to protect persecuted and displaced families from becoming refugees by delivering aid inside conflict zones and providing small-business empowerment opportunities. He is author of “Preemptive Love: Pursuing Peace One Heart at a Time” and the forthcoming “Love Anyway.”