Order to help religious minorities fleeing persecution risks alienating Muslim neighbors, leaders say
Few people are more distraught by President Donald Trump’s executive order barring citizens of seven Middle Eastern and African countries from the U.S. than the leaders of a community he said he seeks to help: the region’s Christians.
Mr. Trump’s order, issued last Friday and aimed at preventing terrorist attacks on American soil, suspended travel from these Muslim-majority countries for at least 90 days. It also ordered a revamping of the U.S. refugee admission process to prioritize those who suffer religious persecution—but only if the applicants follow a “minority religion” in their country.
Most of the violence in the Middle East, however, is between Sunni and Shiite Muslims who both follow the same religion (Sunnis are a minority in Iraq and a majority in Syria). Speaking to the Christian Broadcasting Network last week, Mr. Trump said he meant to single out Christians, followers of by far the largest minority faith in the Middle East.
“They’ve been treated horribly,” he said. “We are going to help them.”
That may be good news for a few thousand Middle Eastern Christians aiming to move to the U.S.—but also a troubling message for the roughly 13 million who won’t. While White House officials reject depictions of Mr. Trump’s executive order as a Muslim ban, it has been widely portrayed in the region as consistent with his campaign rhetoric regarding Muslims entering the U.S.
“Nobody is seeing this as motivated only by security and everybody views this as targeting largely Muslim immigration,” said Basem Shabb, the only Protestant member of Lebanon’s parliament. “Trump’s offer of help is like a poisoned chalice. It has come at the expense of alienating the region’s Christians from their Muslim neighbors.”
The position of Christians in the Middle East varies dramatically. In Lebanon, where the president and the armed forces commander are both Christians, they account for a large part of the population and enjoy relative safety. In Egypt, the region’s biggest Christian community has been targeted by a series of terrorist attacks but remains a bulwark of support for President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi. Neither country is covered by the executive order.
Among the seven countries included in Mr. Trump’s ban, which prohibited entry to Muslims and Christians alike, Syria and Iraq both have large Christian communities. Christians there have been persecuted and ousted from their homes by Islamic State and other Sunni extremist groups. But they were usually afforded slightly better treatment than Shiite Muslims, who faced a choice between conversion or death.
Across the Middle East, a significant part of Muslim public opinion has long viewed Christian citizens with suspicion because of their historic links with the West. Mr. Trump’s executive order is likely to inflame these feelings, warned Michael Wahid Hanna, a specialist on the region at the Century Foundation think tank in New York.
“It paints the Christians and other minorities as almost a ward of the West, a community that doesn’t necessarily have a future in the Arab world,” he said.
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