This column has been updated
Shortly before issuing a sweeping executive order to suspend refugee admissions for 120 days, President Trump gave an interview in which he said he wanted to give priority to Christians in Syria. (The actual order does not single out Christians, but religious minorities in countries.) He said that “if you were a Christian in Syria it was impossible, at least very tough to get into the United States.”
Is this really the case?
A White House spokesman did not respond to a query about Trump’s assertion, but the numbers certainly indicate that relatively few Christians have been admitted as Syrian refugees. Here’s what the State Department website shows for Syrian refugees admitted in calendar year 2016:
Muslim Sunni: 15,134
Muslim Shiite: 29
Christians, in other words, represent less than of one percent of the refugees admitted, even though they make up about 5 percent of the Syrian population, according to the Pew Research Center.
But this is a case where figures can be misleading. Let’s look at the numbers for Iraq, whose refugees register at the exact same offices in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and other countries maintained by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. UNHCR identifies refugees for possible admission to the United States, though the final approval and screening is done by the U.S. government.
Muslim Sunni: 5,106
Muslim Shiite: 3,342
In the case of Iraq, Christians represent 15 percent of the Iraqi refugees, even though they only make up less than 1 percent of the Iraqi population. (*Correction: an earlier version of this article undercounted the number of Iraqi and Syrian Christians because many were listed as “Catholic” or another Christian faith rather than “Christian.” Totals may reflect other religions.)
The simple fact is that the reason for the disparity is unclear, though there are a number of theories. Nina Shea, who heads the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, says that Syrian Christians are “marginalized” in U.N. programs, especially in refugee camps. She says that many Christians are afraid to settle in camps because the camps are dominated by Muslims.
UNHCR data shows that only about 10 percent of refugees — 490,000 — are in camps, whereas nearly 4.4 million refugees are in urban and rural areas.
But Shea said that she has met with many Syrian Christian refugees who are “clamoring” to get out but can’t get processed.
“I don’t know how to explain this,” she said. “It raises a red flag of de facto discrimination.”
Still, UNHCR data indicates that relatively few of the Syrian refugees have identified themselves as Christian. In Syria, 1.5 percent of the 1 million refugees are Christian, in Jordan, 0.2 percent of the 655,000 refugees are Christian, in Iraq, 0.3 percent of the 228,000 refugees are Christian, and in Egypt, 0.1 percent of the 115,000 refugees are Christian. However, religion is not recorded in Turkey, where 2.7 million Syrian refugees have fled.
Chris Boian, a UNHCR spokesman, that the agency did not know why there was such a disparity between the Christian makeup of Iraqi and Syrian refugees arriving in the United States, except that the agency does not discriminate. “We believe part of it is that Syria is not Iraq,” he said. “Many Syrian refugees may have the financial and social means to move without going through UNHCR.”
For instance, Lebanon has a relatively large Christian population and has historically been linked to Syria.
In October 2015, Shea directly asked then-U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres — now U.N. secretary general — during an appearance at the National Press Club about the dearth of Christian refugees from Syria. He responded by noting that the percentages were higher for Iraq, in part because he believed the experience for Christians was far worse in Iraq. He also noted that most of the Syria Christians had fled to Lebanon because of the long-standing links between the two countries.
Guterres said that Lebanon’s then-Christian president had even told him: “Don’t resettle Christians. They are vital to us.” Guterres went on to say that the Middle East “is where Christianity was born, and to see these communities at the risk of being eradicated from that area is something I consider with horror. … [To remove Christians from] that part of the world that would be to really do an amputation in the DNA of Christianity and in the DNA of the Middle East.”
To Shea, those comments indicated an unwillingness by the U.N. to let Syrian Christians move out of the region. She said it was necessary for the United States to directly interview potential refugees.
But Michael J.L. La Civita, communications director of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, said there was a significant difference between the Syrian and Iraqi refugees.
He said many Syrian Christians have fled to regime-held areas, such as Damascus and the Valley of the Christians, hunkering down to remain near their properties and businesses; he said they generally support the Syrian regime. Most Christians who have left Syria have not registered with U.N, agencies, which is a necessary step to be considered a refugee. By contrast, he said, “more Iraqis have registered once they travel to Jordan so as to join families in the West.”
About half of the Syrian Christians have fled, he said, and “the vast majority chose Lebanon, as the churches there have a strong social service system, and proximity and a shared culture and history.”
The Pinocchio Test
Trump goes too far to claim that it is “very tough” for Syrian Christians to become refugees in the United States, and that they have been “horribly treated.” While it is correct that a relatively small percentage of Syrian refugees have been admitted, the Iraqi experience is exactly the opposite, even though the same U.N. agency is handling the refugee requests. The basic fact is no one fully understands why there is such a disparity, though it appears connected to the roots the Syrians have with Lebanon. The president could highlight that situation without suggesting that something nefarious is going on.
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