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Christian Leaders Question Trump's Promise To Favor Christian Refugees

President Trump is promising to give priority to Christians fleeing persecution — yet some of the strongest criticism of his executive order is coming from Christian leaders themselves.

Some say the temporary ban on admitting refugees challenges the Christian ethic of welcoming the stranger. Others worry that favoring Christians over other immigrants could actually backfire.

Among the Christian groups criticizing President Trump's executive order are some who have been generally friendly to him. Eight evangelical leaders, including Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, who prayed at his inauguration, sent Trump a letter Sunday asking him to reconsider his suspension of refugee resettlement.

Another clergyman who prayed at Trump's inauguration, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, told reporters Sunday that the executive order "at first blush causes us some apprehension."

"But we're looking forward to studying it, and we look forward to hearing the experts who work for us in the next couple of days to say, 'Here's what it says. Here's the trouble it's going to cause, and here's what we need to do about it,' " he said.

Dolan is a longtime Trump friend. Other Catholic leaders were much harsher in their assessment of the executive order.

That criticism from the Christian world is notable because President Trump said he'll give special attention to Christian refugees. The executive order itself doesn't mention Christians by name, saying only that members of religious minorities will be given priority treatment.

But in an interview last week with the Christian Broadcasting Network, Trump specifically said he sees Christians as a priority because "they've been horribly treated."

"If you were a Christian in Syria, it was impossible, at least very, very tough, to get in the United States. If you were a Muslim, you could come in. But if you were a Christian, it was almost impossible," Trump said.

In fact, more than 99 percent of the Syrian refugees entering the United States in 2016 were Muslim, though refugee experts say that does not necessarily mean Christian refugees were discriminated against. Only a small percentage of the Syrians fleeing the country were Christian; they may also have been underrepresented in the refugee camps overseen by the U.N. refugee agency, which is largely responsible for determining who qualify as refugees.

The prospect of a Syrian Christian gaining admission to the United States, however, will actually be worse under Trump's executive order, at least in the short term. The directive bars all refugees from Syria, including Christians, indefinitely.

As for refugee law generally, it is not as though someone can qualify for refugee status simply by being a Christian.

"The core of being a refugee is having a reasonable fear of persecution," says Paul Rosenzweig, a law professor at George Washington University and an official in the Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush.

"If you cannot demonstrate that, then you're not entitled to get any status at all," he says.

It's a case-by-case determination. A Christian who wants to come to the United States but cannot demonstrate that he or she faces persecution back home will not get special treatment.

Christians have been persecuted widely in the Middle East, especially in areas under the control of ISIS. But even those organizations most supportive of beleaguered Christians have mixed feelings about prioritizing them over others facing persecution.

David Curry, president of Open Doors USA, worries that putting Christians in a favored category could actually make things worse for them.

"What I think might exacerbate the challenge is that if this is seen as a religious test to get into America, [extremists will] use that as an excuse to attack Christians even further," he says.

Curry's organization advocates giving priority simply to those people most in need of refuge, whether Christians or minority Muslims or Yazidis.

Andrew Doran, senior policy adviser for the organization In Defense of Christians, thinks the priority should be on preserving Christian communities in the Middle East; he'd like to see more of an effort to protect them where they now live.

"It's very important for these Syrians to be safe, protected, and the best way to do this is for a U.S.-led international coalition to establish protected zones," he says.

As recently as last week, President Trump was saying he'd support the establishment of safe zones in Syria. That proposal was in an earlier draft of his executive order. But it was omitted in the final version.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.