Faith community leaders have been among the most vocal critics of President Trump’s executive order granting persecuted religious minorities around the world — including some victims of genocide — preferred refugee status, despite longstanding international law citing religious persecution as a criterion to determine who qualifies as a refugee.
At a press conference Tuesday organized by the InterFaith Conference, Episcopal Diocesan Bishop Mariann E. Budde said Mr. Trump’s executive order should be “deeply offensive” to Christians.
“I think it’s very important for us in the Christian faith to say it’s deeply disturbing to single Christians out for favoritism from countries where people from all faiths, and especially people from the Muslim faith, are also being tremendously persecuted,” Ms. Budde said at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, D.C.
The executive order halts the U.S. refugee program for four months until more robust screening measures can be put in place. It contains a carve-out for persecuted religious minorities, but does not mention any by name.
That provision, in conjunction with a temporary travel ban from seven Muslim-majority countries, has been widely interpreted as a Muslim ban, echoing a promise Mr. Trump made on the campaign trail.
But Nina Shea, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, said Mr. Trump’s order grants preferred refugee status to any member of a persecuted religious minority — not just Christians. She said giving priority to the victims of religious-based persecution does not preclude other groups from obtaining refugee status.
“It’s not only justified, but I think we have a moral obligation to admit victims of genocide and give them priority treatment,” Ms. Shea said.
Doing so is also in keeping with U.N. policy citing religious persecution to determine refugee status, Ms. Shea said.
“What’s been forgotten is international refugee law, which establishes that someone who has a well-founded fear of religious persecution — as well as political, racial, ethnic [persecution] and so forth — is a fundamental criterion of refugee status,” she said.
Far from a Muslim ban, she said a de-facto “Christian ban” on Middle Eastern refugees was in place during former President Obama’s tenure.
Comparable numbers of Christian and Muslim refugees were admitted during Mr. Obama’s presidency, but the majority of Christian refugees came from the Ukraine and Central African Republic.
Among the refugees who came from Syria in 2016, more than 97 percent were Sunni Muslims, a group not targeted by the Islamic State. Christians comprised less than 1 percent of the total. Yet former Secretary of State John F. Kerry last year said the Islamic State had committed genocide against three religious minorities in the Middle East — Christians, Yazidis and Muslim Shiites.
Ms. Shea said the media and others have “mischaracterized” Mr. Trump’s order.
“I think that there are people coming to [the order] with various levels of understanding of what it actually says and doesn’t say,” Ms. Shea said. “I think it has been mischaracterized as a ‘Muslim ban’ and as prioritizing Christians. But that’s not what it says.”
“I think that the mischaracterizations have been failure to actually read it on the part of some people,” she said.
The interfaith press conference was attended by nearly two dozen representatives from various faith groups, including Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington. Asked about Mr. Trump’s refugee policy, Cardinal Wuerl referred to a statement condemning the order issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“We believe in assisting all those who are vulnerable and fleeing persecution, regardless of their religion,” Bishop Joe S. Vsquez of Austin, Texas, said in the statement. “This includes Christians, as well as Yazidis and Shia Muslims from Syria, Rohingyas from Burma, and other religious minorities. However, we need to protect all our brothers and sisters of all faiths, including Muslims, who have lost family, home, and country.”
Atheists joined their religious counterparts in denouncing Mr. Trump’s order.
Larry T. Decker, executive director of the Secular Coalition for America, called the refugee policy an unconstitutional religious test on admittance into the country.
“President Trump’s executive order must be recognized as the establishment of a religious test that is incompatible with our constitution and our values as Americans,” Mr. Decker said in a statement. “The Trump campaign repeatedly denigrated Muslims and pledged to enact policies that discriminated against them. Now, at the expense of our First Amendment and our nation’s credibility, the Trump Administration is attempting to make good on this campaign promise.”
Gary Bauer, founder of the Campaign for Working Families, said he is bewildered by the lack of support for Mr. Trump’s order from the faith community.
“I think they’re confused,” Mr. Bauer said. “Written into our laws is a list of criteria that the law requires to be looked at in determining whether a group is being persecuted because of ethnicity or religion or so forth. In the eighties, our country thankfully elevated Soviet Jews as a top priority to get into the United States. During the Vietnam War, it was Vietnamese Catholics who were given priority because they were particularly hated by the communists.”