Pope Francis last month took a visit to the island of Lesbos in Greece, visited with Syrian refugees and then took back a dozen of them with him to Rome.
This symbolic gesture was nice. He also, just the other day, lectured European leaders on their failure to take in refugees. He called recent migrants “new Europeans” and said they should be integrated on the continent.
The Lesbos event was marred by the Pope’s failure to take back a single Christian refugee, even though at least one family was available and singled out for asylum by Vatican officials. The family said that they were informed they would be transported away by the Pope, but when the time came, they were rejected. Papal spokespeople said it was an unfortunate document snafu, though that’s hard to believe that, on this highly organized visit and media spectacular, a bureaucratic detail got in the way.
But let’s take the Vatican’s word for it. What is more telling is that Francis has made no such refugee-rescue gesture toward thousands of Iraqi Christians who languish in refugee camps in Kurdistan and who are readily available for migration. They fled their homes in Mosul and surrounding Iraqi towns under threats of the Islamic State almost two years ago.
Nor, in his speech to European leaders on May 6, did he make any appeal for them.
What makes the Iraqi Christian refugees different from others in Middle East war zones? They were forced to flee purely on the grounds that they were Christians, even though the fighting in Mosul and elsewhere in the surrounding area had stopped. They are not merely victims of a war crime, but a crime against humanity prohibited in wartime and peacetime. They clearly fit the universally accepted definition of refugees which includes people who can’t go home because of persecution for religious beliefs.
Yet no one has lifted a finger to rescue these Iraqi Christian communities. This is odd, since the Pope himself fought hard to have a genocide designation applied to Middle Eastern Christians by both the United Nations and by the Obama Administration. The European Union has also affirmed that Middle East Christians face genocide.
Inaction speaks louder than words. President Obama effectively erased the category of religious persecution from American immigration law. Last November, he said the United States has no “religious test” for accepting refugees. He was dishonest to do so. Of course, we do. It is specifically written into US immigration statutes: a refugee is someone who has a “well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”
When in March, Obama’s State Department said Christians face genocide, officials made clear that they would recommend doing nothing about it. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential candidates, has parroted Obama’s line that, somehow, accepting Christians would be wrong.
The truth is Obama doesn’t want to take them in, neither the Christians nor other deserving refugees, in any number for fear of igniting immigration controversy in the United States. The notion that refugee status would exclude Muslims or other religious groups is a canard (not to mention an incorrect reading of immigration law by Republicans). The US has accepted Muslims from Bosnia and Kosovo and Jews from the Soviet Union in the past.
But what about Pope Francis? At Easter, he asked everybody not to“forget the plight of persecuted Christians” in Iraq. That’s all. No refugee status. Francis, too, seems to operate under the notion that if you speak up for Iraqi Christians, you are somehow biased and blind to the needs of others. That is not the case. Like several Iraqi minorities, including Yazidi communities expelled from homes near Mosul in 2014, Christians have suffered religious persecution for more than a decade. Iraqi Christians did not just flee bombs. They fled a new, radical fundamentalist regime that declared them a pariah community.
To advocate in favor of this population is to possess a coherent policy regarding religious persecution and refugee status. By ignoring the Iraqi Christians, Pope Francis abandons his flock in the name of some sort of vague generalist posture that helps no one. He is wrong to do so.