By Julian Hattem - 12/15/15 06:00 AM EST
Conservatives are outraged over the small number of Christian Syrian refugees who have been allowed to enter the United States — even as some on the right float a ban on their Muslim counterparts.
The U.S. has allowed just 34 Christians to enter as refugees from Syria since the civil war broke out there more than four years ago, according to the State Department’s most recent available data.
While suggestions that the U.S. employs a blanket ban on Christian refugees from Syria have been proved false, leading Republicans are seizing on the issue, arguing that the Obama administration should do more to help Syria's Christians escape the threat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
The issue is almost certain to come up during Tuesday evening’s GOP presidential debate, which is the first since concerns about refugees spiked following indications that at least one terrorist involved in last month’s killing of 130 people in Paris had entered Europe disguised as a Syrian refugee.
"If you're from Syria and you're a Christian, you cannot come into this country, and they're the ones that are being decimated,” GOP front-runner Donald TrumpDonald TrumpPost piles on: ‘Beyond debate’ Trump is unfit for office Clinton, Netanyahu have ‘in-depth’ conversation about US-Israeli ties NYT lays out argument against Trump for president MORE said at a speech in Las Vegas this summer.
Analysts say the small numbers of Christian refugees in the U.S. is a result of many factors, including politics within Syria and across the Middle East.
Yet Republicans appear insistent, and are eyeing steps they can take to speed up the influx of Christians — as other refugees are viewed with suspicion.
The scrutiny on the Obama administration’s treatment of Syrian Christians is only likely to rise in coming weeks, as the State Department nears an expected finding that the ISIS slaughter of the small Yazidi community amounts to a genocide — while the killing of Christians does not.
“The Christians and the Yazidis are more like the Jews in Nazi Germany,” Nina Shea, the director of the center for religious freedom at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank, told The Hill.
“They are being deliberately targeted for eradication by ISIS.”
Some conservatives blame discrepancy on the United Nations, which provides initial referrals for refugees who eventually resettle in the U.S. Christians feel discriminated against in overcrowded United Nations refugee camps, critics allege, and may even be subject to violence.
“It’s a scandal that these are places of sanctuary that should be safe havens — temporary safe havens for these refugees, and it’s actually more of the same kind of violence and persecution that you find outside the camps,” said Shea.
Relying on the U.N.’s refugee agency, Sen. Tom CottonTom CottonFears mount that Obama will change course on Israel in final months GOP pressures Kerry on Russia's use of Iranian airbase GOP to Obama: Sanction Chinese entities to get to North Korea MORE (R-Ark.) claimed in November, “unintentionally discriminates against Syrian Christians and other religious minorities who are reluctant to register as refugees with the United Nations for fear of political and sectarian retribution.”
Cotton said that the United States' reliance on U.N. referrals should “be re-evaluated.”
Others point to more nuanced politics within Syria and around the Middle East.
Christians were largely protected under the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, who is a member of the minority Alawite offshoot of Islam. Even while Christians flee ISIS, they may feel safer under Assad’s sphere of influence, U.N High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres suggested at an event in Washington in October.
“The regime in itself is not a threat to the Christian community in Syria,” Guterres said at a conference at Georgetown University on Oct. 29.
"The number of people fleeing Syria from the Christian community has been much smaller, as a percentage of the total Christian community in Syria, than what we have seen with Iraqi Christians in Iraq.”
Lebanon, which has a formal power-sharing relationship between Muslims and Christians, has been more eager to take in the Christians, Guterres added.
“Don’t resettle Christians, because we want them in Lebanon!” former Lebanese President Michel Suleiman told Guterres during their first meeting together, according to Guterres.
Republicans presidential candidates will likely be asked Tuesday evening about the Obama administration’s plans to bring in more Syrian refugees as they spar over competing paths to reassure the American public, given new terrorism fears.
After last month’s Paris attacks, Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzTrump enters new debate frontier Pence offers Cruz 'heartfelt thanks' for Trump endorsement Cruz: Trump hasn't apologized for personal insults MORE (R-Texas) and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R-Fla.) suggested that the U.S. should only welcome Christian refugees, since they were at greater risk in Syria and posed less of a threat to U.S. national security.
The proposal prompted outrage from Obama, who called it a “potent recruitment tool” for ISIS and “not American.”
The fight is likely to return to the headlines in coming weeks, if the State Department releases its expected determination that ISIS’s massacre of beleaguered Yazidis amounts to genocide. The slaughtering of Christians is expected not to merit the same label.
Leaving Christians out of the genocide category would be absurd, Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) said during a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing last week.
Legally labeling the slaughter as genocide could force the U.S. to take more action to root out ISIS’s targeting of Yazidis, an ancient ethnic-religious group who has borne a particularly brutal brunt of ISIS’s violence. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum set the stage for a designation last month by issuing a report calling the slaughter of Yazidis an active genocide.
The State Department has declined to discuss its deliberations before it makes a decision.
But members of Congress are trying to spur it to act on both Yazidis and Christians.
More than 160 lawmakers from both parties have signed on to legislation decrying ISIS’s violence against Yazidis, Christians and other ethnic and religious minorities as “war crimes,” “crimes against humanity” and “genocide.”
Others have reached out directly to Secretary of State John KerryJohn KerryTime for Action on Bahrain When wise men attack: Why Gates is wrong about Clinton, Libya Internal memo: Refugee program vulnerable to fraud MORE.
“A designation of genocide is central to helping end the violent ISIS campaign against Christians and other religious minorities across the Middle East,” Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) told Kerry in a letter this month.
“We must take this important step of including both groups in order to put an end to this urgent human rights crisis.”