Syrian refugees are a test of our nation’s values

Some five years ago, between Thanksgiving and Christmas—the holiday season we are celebrating now--three distraught mothers came to see me about the chance of helping to free their children from a prison in Iran.  They were the mothers of three young American hikers. The State Department has suggested to them that a religious channel might be helpful, as political channels had failed. 

Working with several other religious leaders—Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish—over time we were able to influence the Supreme Leader of Iran to eventually release the Americans and reunite them with their parents. It was evidence that faith communities must stick together in defending the rights of human beings, regardless of their religious beliefs.  

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Five years since those mothers visited me, we now see that some Americans want to close our doors to Syrian families—some who are trying to reunite with loved ones in the United States but all who are fleeing for their lives. 

The strong opposition to Syrian refugees coming to the United States is an expression of the fear Americans justifiably feel from the horror of the Paris attacks.  In times such as these, we must be careful not to let our fear cloud our judgment as to the best way forward, and, in so doing, sacrifice our values as a nation. 

Since 2011, when the Syrian conflict began, the United States has resettled a little over 2,000 Syrians—predominately women and children. This is a tiny fraction of the 4 million Syrian refugees who have fled their country for safety.  Accepting 10,000 more next year, as the Administration has proposed, would send a signal to the world that we are willing to share the burden of protecting the refugees, until the conflict in Syria can be ended. 

Syrians, like other refugees, go through several interviews by U.S. officials and multiple security clearances over a two-year period---more scrutiny than any other arrival to the United States.  According to the State Department, if the process does not garner enough information to ensure a refugee applicant is not a security threat, then that person is not admitted to the United States. 

Moreover, they know well about terrorism, as they have been victims of it. They have experienced the violence of Paris in their own homeland, but on a more frequent basis. In the end, they simply want what all Americans want: for them and their children to live in security, without fear. 

Some have suggested that the United States should only accept Syrians and Iraqis who are Christian.  Of course, Christian minorities, including Chaldean Catholics, from the region deserve our support and protection—ideally in the region so Christian communities there can survive, but also in other countries, if necessary.  The large majority of Syrians fleeing religious and other forms of persecution are, in fact, Muslim, targeted by extremists in their own faith tradition.  Is it Christian to deny them protection because of their religious beliefs?   

The late Cardinal James Hickey, archbishop of Washington, D.C., summed up this conviction from a Catholic perspective:  “We serve others not because they are Catholic, but because we are Catholic.”  

Our nation was founded by those who were escaping religious persecution in England.  Since our inception, we have offered refuge to millions of persons from around the world.  It is a record of which we should be proud.  However, we have made mistakes, as well, having incarcerated Japanese during World War II and turned back Jews fleeing Nazi Germany.   

This is another time where history will judge what we do.  In his message to Congress, Pope Francis urged us to apply the Golden Rule—not only because it was the right thing to do, but because it would ensure that others would treat us the same way.  “The yardstick by which we measure others is the yardstick by which time will measure us,” he said.  If we close our doors to these refugees, we are not only sacrificing our moral influence globally, we also are giving those who want to hurt us more power and influence to do so later.

We need not make that choice.  We are a great nation and have the capability to honor our heritage and live in safety and without fear.  Surely, at this special time of year, we must remember the origins of our nation and stay true to its principles: that we are a nation built by immigrants and refugees and that we honor and protect religious beliefs of all who come here.   

Let us make this a moment in our history where we learned from our mistakes and uphold the values which have made us great.

McCarrick is archbishop emeritus of Washington, D.;C.

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