Persecuted Christians are fleeing from the Middle East in increasing numbers. The United States should open its doors to them as a guaranteed safe haven.
America has long been a beacon of hope for the world’s refugees, and members of religious minorities in the Middle East are in increasing need of relief. They have never had things easy, facing both official and popular intolerance from the Muslim majorities among whom they live. But as the region becomes less stable, intolerance has turned to active persecution and violence.
The Christian population in Iraq is one of the most at risk. Around half of Iraqi Christians have fled the country since 2003, and those who remain expect growing challenges, given the U.S. military pullout. Christians have suffered periodic waves of violence, including bombings, assassinations and church burnings. When Iraq’s government said in 2010 it would issue a license to carry firearms to any Christian family that wanted one, it was simply acknowledging the reality that followers of the faith had to arm or die.
Many Iraqi Christians have fled over the border to Syria, but the situation there is growing perilous. Syrian Christians, who make up 10 percent of the population, have tried for the most part to stay out of the politics of the rebellion. They worry that a victory by the protesters will usher in a new era of Islamist oppression, but they cannot side openly with dictator Bashar Assad for fear of reprisal should the regime be overthrown.
In Egypt, violence against the Coptic Christian minority is on the rise. Copts fear that should Islamists take power, they will see significant erosion in whatever rights they still have. The Muslim Brotherhood has attempted to ease these fears but has admitted that Copts would face a series of new restrictions under their prospective rule.
Pakistan’s 20 million Christians face a variety of threats, including forced conversion and attacks on churches and worshippers. The Pakistan Christian Congress has appealed to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to award them refugee status, but the U.N. so far has been reluctant to recognize there is a crisis. In Afghanistan, the situation is even worse. Kabul refuses to admit the existence of the few thousand Christians in the country. An Afghan Christian named Aman Ali was forced to flee to India with his family after he received numerous threats on his life. He applied for refugee status but was told by an official of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that his case didn’t fit its criteria. His is one of a large number of cases of UNHCR unwillingness to acknowledge that being a Christian is tantamount to being under a death sentence.
Christian refugees from Muslim-majority countries who can reach the United States should be given the same special status that asylum-seekers from communist countries were accorded during the Cold War. Precedent exists: The definition of a “refugee-escapee” in the 1957 Immigration and Nationality Act included not only those who had fled “from any Communist-dominated, or Communist-occupied area” but also those “from any country within the general area of the Middle East, and who cannot return to such area, or to such country, on account of race, religion or political opinion.” Christians and other religious minorities are increasingly unwelcome in the Muslim world; they should be given sanctuary in America.