President Donald Trump has undermined America’s “moral credibility” to advocate for religious freedom on the world stage by deciding to slash refugee admissions to the U.S., an evangelical relief organization says.
Some of America’s top evangelical leaders were thrilled when Trump hosted a meeting at the United Nations last week and called on governments around the world to end the persecution of religious minorities. He pledged at the session that “America will always be a voice for victims of religious persecution everywhere.”
“No matter where you go, you have a place in the United States of America,” he told some survivors of religious persecution who attended the meeting.
But just three days later, Trump proposed capping refugee admissions for the next fiscal year at 18,000 ― the lowest ceiling established by a president since Congress created the refugee resettlement program in 1980.
About 5,000 of those slots have reportedly been reserved for people persecuted for their faith. But that number is still so small that it signals a “dramatic abdication of U.S. leadership in standing with persecuted religious minorities,” said Matthew Soerens, U.S. director of church mobilization and advocacy for World Relief, an evangelical refugee resettlement and humanitarian aid group.
In the past, a significant number of the refugees resettled in the U.S. had faced “horrific violations of religious freedom” in their countries, Soerens said, including Christians, Yezidis, Muslims, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Bahá’ís from countries such as Iraq, Iran, Syria, Myanmar and Pakistan.
“When the U.S. turns its backs on our historical position of offering safety and religious freedom to some of the most persecuted individuals in the world, we also abandon our moral credibility to insist that other nations do more to respect religious liberty,” Soerens told HuffPost.
“I’m thankful for the administration’s focus on international religious freedom, but these policies actually undermine the positive rhetoric,” he said.
President Barack Obama set the admissions cap at 110,000 during his final year in office. But Trump has made curbing refugee admissions a priority. It’s a sentiment that is shared by much of his white evangelical base ― 68% of white evangelicals say the U.S. does not have a responsibility to accept refugees, according to a 2018 survey by the Pew Research Center.
At the same time, evangelical Christians are also concerned about the persecution of religious minorities. The president won praise from evangelical leaders last year after Turkey released evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson, who had been detained in the country for two years. Trump had imposed sanctions on Turkey and credits the pressure he put on the government for Brunson’s release. Trump welcomed the pastor home with a high profile meeting at the White House and mentioned him during his speech at the U.N. religious freedom meeting.
Soerens said he doesn’t think most evangelicals have realized how religious freedom and refugee admissions are linked. “If and when they realize that President Trump has ... broken his promise to facilitate the resettlement of persecuted Christians, I suspect many will be deeply troubled,” he said.
He also said that while World Relief believes the U.S. should welcome vulnerable refugees of all faiths, many evangelicals have a “misinformed and unbiblical fear of Muslim refugees.”
Asked whether Trump’s slashes to the refugee resettlement program undermine his commitment to religious freedom, a State Department spokesperson pointed to the administration’s proposal to allocate a specific number of slots to people who have suffered or fear religious persecution.
“Prioritizing security here at home is not at odds with our advancement of religious freedom abroad,” the spokesperson said. “The United States remains committed to promoting and protecting religious freedom for all individuals, while prioritizing the safety and security of the American people.”
However, allocating just 5,000 slots for persecuted religious minorities means, at best, an 80% decline from the annual average number of religious minorities resettled during the Obama administration, Soerens said.
In addition, the overall reduced ceiling would pit those persecuted for their faith against those persecuted for other reasons, such as race or political belief, “who equally need protection,” Soerens said.
World Relief is the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals, an umbrella group for many evangelical denominations. World Relief is one of nine nonprofits that partner with the State Department to help refugees resettle in the U.S.
Other faith-based refugee resettlement agencies ― including Church World Service, the Jewish charity HIAS, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service ― have spoken out against Trump’s changes to the resettlement program.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, chaired by longtime Trump supporter Tony Perkins, has urged the administration to return the ceiling to the historic average of 95,000. Perkins heads the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian policy and lobbying group.
Under the Trump administration, World Relief has experienced a significant decline in the number of refugees it is able to resettle, according to Soerens. Between fiscal years 2007 and 2016, the group resettled an average of 6,574 refugees per year, peaking during the last year of the Obama administration with 8,532 arrivals. Those numbers started dropping under Trump, with approximately 2,350 refugees resettled in fiscal year 2019, which ended on Monday.
Due to the sudden drop in arrivals and a concurrent reduction in funds World Relief receives from the State Department to resettle refugees, the organization has had to close seven offices across the country since 2017.
“We’re confident we can sustain our ministry in many locations regardless of the future of the U.S. refugee resettlement program,” Soerens said. “However, it is possible that we’ll have to make further adjustments to the scope and scale of our work in the U.S. as a result of this decision.”