Donald Trump and The Last Crusade – How The President Fails In His Mission To Protect Arab Christians

President Trump is only a month into his four-year term, yet the rapid steps he has taken in implementing his policies have led to widespread commotion at home and abroad. Perhaps the most representative example of such disarray is his recent immigration order, derided as a “Muslim Ban” by opponents. Though not a wholesale restriction on Muslim immigration, the since struck-down order did temporarily ban immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries identified by the Obama administration as being “high-risk” (section 217(a)(12) of the INA, 8 U.S.C. 1187(a)(12)). Also highly controversial was the inclusion of a temporary blanket ban on refugee entry, including a permanent one in the case of Syrians.

      Though many informative and accurate articles have already been written regarding the ban itself, little has been said about an important side-statement made by the President. In the days following its signing, President Trump informed the media this and further actions would be taken in order to ensure the arrival of persecuted minorities, particularly Arab Christians. Indeed, a CNN story from the time reads “Trump says US will prioritize Christian refugees”. In an interview conducted by the Christian Broadcasting Network’s David Brody, Trump answers in the affirmative when asked “The refugee program that—or the refugee changes you’re looking to make, as it relates to persecuted Christians, do you see them as kind of a priority here?”.

      In response to this and many similar statements made by members of the current administration, it is important to consider the following questions: How have Arab Christians historically and recently fared? How grounded are President Trump’s concerns that Christian refugees from the region are being mistreated? How do the current administration policies currently affect their entry, relative to refugees on a whole? Are there any indications that President Trump’s future steps will provide preferential treatment to Christian refugees?

      Arab Christians or “Masihiyyun” (those who follow the Messiah) once had a significant presence in the Middle East. A century ago, they comprised 14% of the regional population (Johnson and Zurlo), contributing greatly to the intellectual and cultural rebirth of the Arab World as the Ottoman Empire withered away. One such prominent Christian was Michel Aflaq.

Hailing from Syria’s now-ravaged capital of Damascus, Aflaq was instrumental in the development of Ba’athism(“rebirthism”), a makeshift blend of Pan-Arabism and authoritarian socialism meant to unite the Arabs under a single, secular banner. Today, the Syrian Regional Branch of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party still holds nominal power in the country, as its leader Bashar Al Assad continues to fight in a seemingly endless civil conflict.

      If the outcome of Aflaq’s vision has soured over the past century, so too has the fate of his religious brethren. The same study now estimates that Christians only make up 4% of the Middle East’s population.

A combination of civil war and heightened religious strife has pushed most of their indigenous numbers to flee. As explained Bechara Boutros al-Rahi, Patriarch of Lebanon’s Maronite Church, to AFP in 2012: “[Christians fled] because there was no more authority, there was a vacuum. In Syria, it’s the same thing, Christians do not back the regime [of Bashar al-Assad], but they are afraid of what may come next.”

In power vacuums witnessed throughout the modern age, minorities – particularly ethnic and religious – have seemingly suffered the worst. Be it the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe in the Interbellum or the Rohingya Muslims in the aftermath of British Decolonization, unshackled populations seem to descend into mob rule and turn vulnerable minorities into scape goats. How then have Arab Christian refugees fared in their attempts to flee a ravaged homeland?

For all his hyperboles and half-baked truths, President Trump’s assertion that Arab Christian refugees have an “impossible, or at least very tough” chance of being admitted into the U.S. is not entirely misleading. Government data shows that in FY 2016, of the 12,587 Syrian Refugees, only 68 were Christian, considerably less than their 10% share of the entire nation’s makeup. Not only is this number glaringly low, but it pales in comparison to European nations’ more balanced refugee demographics.

One may well wonder why these religious minorities are so heavily underrepresented in these numbers. One possible explanation is the specific means by which refugees are admitted into the U.S. Whereas many European nations accept refugees and asylum seekers through their own agencies (often because said migrants are already on the nation’s soil at the moment of asking), the United States operates through U.N. refugee camp referrals.

Much as in Syria, religious minorities have been targeted and bullied in these camps. Brigadier General Sami Kafawin, chief of Jordan's border forces, explains that “[Jihadists] are trying to control [the camp] and create cells inside the camp […] more than 90 percent [of camp residents] are asylum seekers, but the others are extremists or Daesh (ISIS) people”. Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, adds that “Christians don’t reside in those camps because it is too dangerous […] they are preyed upon by other residents […] there is infiltration by ISIS and criminal gangs”. 

Whatever the cause for this gross disparity, President Trump is not the first to propose that America explicitly prioritize religious minorities in its refugee program. Just last year, the bipartisan HR 6961 bill would have given priority to genocide survivors and at-risk individuals in refugee resettlement. Considering that former Secretary of State John Kerry had just recently called out ISIS for its “genocide against Christians, Yazidis, and Shia Muslims”, the intentionality of HR 6961 is then clear.

To some, President Trump’s desire to prioritize religious minorities, and specifically Christians, in the nation’s refugee program comes as needed relief.  One such person might be Archbishop of Aleppo Jean Clement Jeanbart, who at an August 2015 conference called out America’s “unjust […] reluctance” to take in Christian Syrians.

To others, the presidential initiative comes off as ill-disposed, if not unconstitutional. Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago took to the pen in writing that “these actions give aid and comfort to those who would destroy our way of life”. Indeed, there is the possibility that this preference shown to them may make Arab Christians an even more desirable target for ISIS butchers.

For the time being, the Trump administration, whose only major step in handling a complex refugee crisis has been its infamous order, has done little to improve the ease of access to American shores for Christian Syrians. As such, the only marked effect his administration has had on the well-being of minority refugees has been wholly negative. Indeed, amid the media storm following his immigration ban signing, one could pick among a dozen news stories covering Christian families that were turned away on arrival.

      At the time of writing, and awaiting President Trump’s next move, media leaks of an internal memo for a second executive order do not mention a promised additional clause for religious minorities.  Noted though is the possibility that the indefinite ban on Syrian refugee intake will be scrapped. Whatever the outcome, little is set to change for religious refugees relative to the whole when regarded by this administration. For all that can be made of the current administration’s swiftness in implementing key parts of its agenda, it remains to be seen if and how it shall deliver on its promise to specifically protect the Christians of the Middle East.