OPINION

Opinion: Syria is hellhole for all Syrians, but Christians less likely to make it to safety

Migrants and refugees stage a protest demanding to be allowed to cross the borderline to Macedonia, near the Greek village of Idomeni, Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015. Tempers have flared at Greece's main border crossing with Macedonia, where riot police pushed back thousands of migrants jostling to cross over, after Macedonia blocked access to people deemed to be economic migrants and not refugees. (AP Photo/Giannis Papanikos)

Migrants and refugees stage a protest demanding to be allowed to cross the borderline to Macedonia, near the Greek village of Idomeni, Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015. Tempers have flared at Greece's main border crossing with Macedonia, where riot police pushed back thousands of migrants jostling to cross over, after Macedonia blocked access to people deemed to be economic migrants and not refugees. (AP Photo/Giannis Papanikos)  (ap)

Recent violence in Paris and now Mali has set off a storm of anxious discussion and disagreement about how best to help the Syrian refugees. The arguments rage on TV between pundits and politicians, but also across American dinner tables, with people of good faith coming to wildly different conclusions.

The United States has a long and proud history as a place of refuge for people fleeing violence and oppression. Where I live in Miami (which we fondly call the capital of Latin America) it’s hard to run across someone who isn’t eternally grateful to be here. Whether Cuban, Venezuelan, or Honduran, so many are refugees or, like my siblings and me, the children of refugees.

Christians are reluctant to register with the UN because they fear retribution from their Islamist neighbors. In refugee camps they are marginalized and abused by the Muslim majority.  

- Dr. Grazie Pozo Christie

I grew up with the vivid residue of my parents’ precipitous exit from Cuba. A suitcase with three changes of clothing per person. No photo albums, diplomas, or recuerdos of happy times that grew ever more precious as it became clear that there would be no return. Imagine losing everything you own, including your country and language, all at once. Add to that the tragic family separations, some, it turned out, to the death. The emotional whirlwinds that shook my home as a little girl make more sense now, that I understand better the enormity of the loss. 

Even without personal experience influencing one’s outlook, it would be a hard heart indeed that could look with indifference at the plight of those fleeing violence in Syria. What to do?  The natural American and human response of welcome, shown wholeheartedly over the decades to people as diverse as European Jews, Afghans, Vietnamese and Cubans, is now tempered by fear. Not bigotry or lack of sympathy, but a rational fear that has been exacerbated by the horrid events in Paris. 

There are obvious security concerns, as Islamist terrorists have shown, over and over, how easily they circumvent the protections of our free and trusting societies to pursue their bloody ends. We are learning now that ISIS may have used the Syrian exodus to plant one of the agents of terror that organized the attacks in Paris. We are not surprised. 

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It was only last month that FBI Director James Comey expressed reservations about the vetting system and its ability to ferret out committed jihadists. And while the refugees may be fleeing violence, a recent poll showed that more that 10 percent had at least a “somewhat positive” view of ISIS. 

Complicating matters now is the fact several people have expressed concern that the most vulnerable Syrians—Christians and other minorities—are those least likely to reach asylum here and in Europe. Their homes are destroyed, daughters kidnapped and raped, churches burned, and they face death if they do not convert to Islam. Syria is a hellhole for all Syrians, but an existential threat to Christians. They are less likely to make it to safety because the Unites States relies on referrals of Syrian refugees from the United Nations. Christians are reluctant to register with the UN because they fear retribution from their Islamist neighbors. In refugee camps they are marginalized and abused by the Muslim majority.  

Consequently, while over 2,000 Muslim Syrians have been given refuge here, only 53 Christians have been admitted. That is 2.4 percent. Christians made up at least 10 percent of the Syrian population before the war and before the start of the genocide. The most victimized are the least represented. 

Jeb Bush, the GOP presidential candidate, made the clearly logical suggestion that priority should be given to those groups – like Christians – “who have no place in Syria anymore. They are being beheaded, they’re being executed by both sides.” This is not a religious test. It is the essence of a morally defensible refugee screening criteria. 

But I think we can look back at our country’s efforts before World War II, and consider how many lives we might have saved if we had come to recognize the awful Nazi genocide sooner. We would have admitted many more Jews, at that time the persecuted minority. Would that have been a shameful religious test? Or simple human love for the victimized and ill-treated?

The important thing to recognize is the goodwill of the American people, who have shown over and over again that their hearts are generous, trusting and open. Admitting refugees carefully –ensuring that terrorists cannot take advantage of our benevolence by using asylum as a point of entry – and making sure that the most viciously persecuted minorities are fully included, is not only rational but deeply humane. 

Dr. Grazie Pozo Christie specializes in radiology in the Miami area and serves on the advisory board for The Catholic Association.

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