Here are four ways Pence could use his visit to make a difference.
1. Acknowledge Palestinians’ connection to Jerusalem.
While the United States does not recognize Palestinian statehood, the Trump administration should do more to acknowledge that Palestinians — including both Christians and Muslims — have a historic connection to Jerusalem.
Most Palestinian Christians belong to the oldest known church, which traces its roots to Jesus’ time. They have long felt ignored or even abandoned by their brothers and sisters in the United States. During his visit, Vice President Pence can serve as a bridge between members of the body of Christ.
To truly support the plight of Christians in the Middle East, the administration should consider minimally leaving the door open for Palestinians to claim the eastern part of Jerusalem as their own future capital.
2. Lift the refugee ban.
By restricting refugee resettlement from various Middle Eastern countries (including a ban set in October on refugee resettlement from Iraq, Iran and Syria, among others), the Trump administration has dramatically reduced the number of persecuted Middle Eastern Christians allowed into the country — while also harming Middle Eastern Muslims trying to flee.
In the past decade, roughly 140,000 Iraqi refugees have come to rebuild their lives in the United States, about a third of whom have been Christians. But since the first iteration of the Trump administration’s travel ban last year, fewer than 450 Iraqi Christians have been resettled — compared to almost 2,000 in 2016 under the Obama administration.
Christian refugees from Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East are being abandoned in the midst of what our State Department called a genocide. After the Islamic State took over Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in 2016, Christians were given an ultimatum to leave or be killed. Thousands fled to neighboring Jordan and Lebanon.
Today, these Iraqi Christians still live in exile in neighboring countries and cannot return since their houses have been burned or confiscated. The United States can directly help the Christians displaced by Islamic State violence by offering them a place to call home.
3. Reach out to Muslims.
While in the Middle East, Pence should also reach out to Muslim clerics and leaders. Christians and Muslims enjoyed centuries of relatively peaceful coexistence prior to the rise of religious radicalism, but relations have deteriorated in recent years. Copts, members of the historic church making up at least a tenth of the Egyptian population, have suffered bloody attacks in recent years. Last month, 10 people were killed when a gunman opened fire outside a church in south Cairo. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the incident.
Additionally, Pence can encourage Saudi Arabia and Egypt, allies of the current administration, to push for reforms to educational and religious curriculums produced by some religious institutions within their countries. These lessons often describe Christians and other non-Muslim groups as infidels, thereby influencing young people’s views of faith and ultimately helping extremists recruit terrorists to commit horrendous acts against non-Muslim civilians.
4. Condemn human rights violations.
Lastly, the United States has to take back the baton of leadership on human rights issues. Palestinian Christians suffer unfair treatment and discrimination under the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. A Palestinian pastor I know had to wait for two years to get his Israeli driver’s license.
Such holdups by the Israeli government have the effect of making life so difficult for all Palestinians that many would choose to migrate, a decision that Palestinian Christians have reluctantly made. The Christian share of the Palestinian population has declined to between 1 percent and 2.5 percent.
By all accounts, Pence takes his Christian faith very seriously, and I do not doubt that his concern for Middle Eastern Christians is genuine. My prayer as he travels to my homeland is that he will heed these concerns, opening his heart and ears to Christians of the Holy Land, not only to Christians of the Bible Belt.
Issam Smeir is a trauma therapist who has served refugees and displaced people both in the Middle East and in the United States. He is the co-author of “Seeking Refuge: On the Shores of the Global Refugee Crisis” (Moody Publishers, 2016).