When President Donald Trump suggested recently the U.S. should prioritize persecuted Christian refugees, not all Christians in the Middle East rejoiced. “We want don’t priority visas. We don’t want him to take us,” says Habib Ephrem. “That’s the wrong message and the wrong policy.”
Ephrem, secretary general of the Gathering of Christians in the Middle East, is one of a number of Christian leaders encouraging Christians to stay in the region and return to their homes in Syria and Iraq, as the areas are cleared of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other groups. Tens of thousands of Christians have been displaced in recent years, mostly languishing in camps and cramped apartments.
But Ephrem says countries that are prioritizing Christian refugees are effectively helping ISIS purge the region of different faiths. “ISIS expels people from their homeland and then you take them to the West,” says Ephrem. “So what? You are doing the policy of ISIS?”
He has gone as far as lobbying foreign governments to stop facilitating Christian migration. The U.S. does not currently give Christian refugees priority, despite Trump’s suggestion, but in the past countries including Poland and Slovakia have indicated they would give preference to Christian refugees, and France has also previously offered to host Christians that fled ISIS. Other countries, like Canada, offer private sponsorship programs at are often used by churches to bring their brethren to the country.
Ephrem and others believe Iraq and Syrian Christians are deserting their earliest homelands. The Christian communities there are some of the oldest in the world; the Nineveh plains and cities in Northern Iraq are even mentioned in the Bible. The exodus of Iraqi Christians started after the U.S. invasion in 2003, but it was ISIS’s rapid advance in 2014 that pushed thousands to flee their villages in a matter of days. ISIS’s objective of creating an Islamic caliphate left Christians with few options — convert, pay, die or leave.
Many chose the latter path. In the past year Karim Faraj’s Facebook feed has been filled with pictures of his Syrian Christian friends now in Europe and Canada. He says hundreds of Christians he knows have found ways to get to Western countries. Some went with visas, but most paid smugglers. His village in Hama province is now controlled by Russian and Syrian forces, he says, but it’s not safe. However, he stayed close by, in neighboring Lebanon, and say he wants to go back to Syria.
“You can’t be truly comfortable except in your own country,” says Faraj, 21. Yet other Syrian Christians say they have little to return to. “Go back to what?” asks Joseph Youhana, a farmer from Hasakah in northeast Syria. “I watched ISIS blow up our church.”
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