Category archives: Religious Persecution

Scalise Shooting Declared to be an Act of Terrorism Under Virginia Law, So Why is the FBI Confused?

by Chris Gacek

November 2, 2017

On October 6th, the Commonwealth’s Attorney for Alexandria, Va., announced his findings in a report regarding the use of force by law enforcement officers during the shooting of Representative Steve Scalise (R-La.) and others at a baseball field on June 14, 2017.[i] Bryan L. Porter concluded that the multiple shooting and attempted mass assassination constituted an act of terrorism under Virginia law.

The Porter report is significant because its conclusion stands in sharp contrast to the report offered by two FBI officials at a press conference eight days after the shooting.[ii] Andrew Vale, the Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s Washington Field Office, indicated that the shooter acted alone and that there was “no nexus to terrorism.”[iii] He also stated that the agency would be investigating the shooting as an assault on a member of Congress and an assault on a federal officer. No indication was given that a terrorism investigation was being conducted, and the statements made seemed to downplay the shooter’s ideological and political beliefs.

It is important to recall the key facts in the case. Early on the morning of June 14, Rep. Scalise, the Majority Whip of the U.S. House of Representatives, and numerous other GOP House members and senators were the primary targets of a mass assassination attempt at an Alexandria baseball diamond. Scalise was shot in the hip and nearly died from his wounds. Two other players on the field, not elected officials, were shot and received dangerous wounds. Two United States Capitol Police agents, present as part of the protective detail for Rep. Scalise, were wounded by gunfire—one seriously.[iv] The would-be assassin, James T. Hodgkinson, was killed after being shot three times.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan L. Porter made the following observation about the would-be assassin’s political affiliation and motivations:

Hodgkinson held strong political opinions and was very unhappy about the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. He spent a significant amount of time on social media, using it to express his political views, such as his strong support for Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.

Another example of this is that Hodgkinson “liked” the Southern Poverty Law Center on Facebook—indicating that he was a fan of the organization and its attacking brand of politics.

Citing the Virginia terrorism statute, Porter confidently concluded, “The evidence in this case establishes beyond a reasonable doubt that the suspect, fueled by rage against Republican legislators, decided to commit an act of terrorism as that term is defined by the Code of Virginia.”[v]

Page 9 of Porter’s report may contain the most significant information pointing to the FBI’s misjudgment in the case—evidence that Hodgkinson conducted a number of surveillance sweeps of the playing field. After the shooting, there was a report to police that Hodgkinson had parked his van at the field on June 10th and walked around the field “casing” it. Porter reported that “at least one member of the Republican baseball team remembered seeing the suspect sitting in the Simpson field stands and watching the team practice on the morning before the incident, June 13.”[vi]  

The Alexandria prosecutor’s report also noted that video files from Hodgkinson’s phone “show video of [the baseball diamond] recorded in April 2017.” This field cannot be described as a tourist site in Alexandria. Rather, it is a relatively unattractive part of the city that one would not visit at 7 a.m. but for the baseball practice. Furthermore, “several witnesses came forward and reported seeing the suspect walking around [the field] in May 2017.” Porter observed that “[f]rom these facts, it may be inferred that the suspect had already selected Simpson Field as a potential target as early as April 2017.”

Even if one does not agree with Porter that Hodgkinson had determined his course of action in April or May 2017, his viewing the practice the day before and looking over the location on June 10th gives strong evidence as to his intentionality in committing the shooting. Of course, this is only underscored by the widely known fact that Hodgkinson had asked two members of the GOP team only moments before the shooting, while walking into the parking lot, whether the Democrat or Republican team was practicing. When told that the GOP team was on the field, he replied “ok, thanks” and proceeded to get his rifle and pistol from his van. The shooting began shortly thereafter.

The shooting was no spur-of-the-moment loss of control by Hodgkinson. It tied into his ideological animosity to the political views of the men he was trying to assassinate, and he intended to kill as many of them as he could.  

The Patriot Act sets forth the definition of “domestic terrorism” at 18 U.S.§ 2331(5). Such terrorism “means activities that”

(A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State;
(B) appear to be intended—
     (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;
     (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or
     (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and
(C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.

It requires little imagination to see how sections 2331(5)(B)(ii) or (iii) might apply to Hodgkinson’s mass assassination attempt. Given his strong anti-Republican and hard-left beliefs combined with his effort to kill numerous members of the U.S. House and Senate, Hodgkinson could easily be seen to be attempting to influence federal government policy by intimidation or coercion—by shooting leading political figures of the majority party in both legislative bodies.

Moreover, it is straightforward to see Hodgkinson’s actions as attempting to influence the conduct of government by assassination. At the very least, dead or significantly wounded members don’t vote or lead while incapacitated. The Majority Whip of the U.S. House of Representatives had been taken from his duties for almost four months, and he may now assess his political future differently. Even though he did not kill any members of Congress, his actions clearly affected our government if only for the horrific effect it had on Majority Whip Scalise.

All of these facts that were available to Mr. Porter and his prosecutor’s office in Virginia were also available to the FBI. Yet, a conservative reading of the federal domestic terrorism definition makes it clear that Hodgkinson’s actions should be characterized by the FBI as terrorism. Yet, the FBI stated eight days after the shooting that there was no nexus to terrorism. Why the rush to shut down a proper inquiry?

Congress needs to look into this and discover why the FBI is mischaracterizing what took place in Alexandria. It isn’t fair to Mr. Scalise or the other victims of this crime. More significantly, it is not accurate, honest, or truthful, and the American people deserve better.

It is a matter of great importance that our leading law enforcement agency understand terrorism. If the FBI cannot apply the law to simple facts, then it may be time for Congress to make some changes in that agency and its Washington field office.



[i] Bryan L. Porter, Use of Force Investigation and Analysis, Commonwealth’s Attorney, City of Alexandria (Oct. 6, 2017) (https://www.alexandriava.gov/uploadedFiles/commattorney/info/17-001%20-%20Simpson%20Field%20Shooting%20-%20FINAL%2010.06.17.pdf).

[ii] Law Enforcement Press Conference on the Shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise and others, FBI Field Office, Washington, D.C.(June 21, 2017): https://www.facebook.com/wjlatv/videos/10155472388738734/ (Facebook page for WJLA-TV). The two FBI officials who participated were Andrew Vale, Assistant Director in Charge, Washington Field Office, and Timothy Slater, Special Agent in Charge, Criminal Division, Washington Field Office.

[iii] It is possible for an act of terrorism itself to have no “nexus to terrorism” – in the sense of a wider terror network, but Vale could have made this more clear.

[iv] Both members of Rep. Scalise’s protective detail, Special Agent David Bailey and Special Agent Crystal Griner, were fired upon; Griner was severely wounded after being shot in her left ankle.

[v]See Va. Code § 18.46.4. In the pertinent part, the Code of Virginia defines an ‘Act of Terrorism’ as ‘an act of violence… committed with the intent to (i) intimidate the civilian population at large or (ii) influence the conduct or activities of the government of the United States, a state or locality through intimidation.’” Carla Branch, “Commonwealth’s Attorney Finds Use Of Deadly Force In June 14 Shooting Justified,” AlexandriaNews.org (Oct. 6, 2017) (http://www.alexandrianews.org/2017/10/commonwealths-attorney-finds-use-of-deadly-force-in-june-14-shooting-justified/).

[vi] Porter, Use of Force Investigation and Analysis, at 9. 

Vice President Pence Announces Relief for Middle East Christians

by Travis Weber

October 27, 2017

Several days ago, Vice President Pence announced that the Trump administration would address the needs of the Middle East’s Christian community directly, bypassing UN aid programs which have been largely ineffective in helping Christians affected by ISIS. Speaking before a gathering of the group In Defense of Christians, Pence stated:

Here’s the sad reality: The United Nations claims that more than 160 projects are in Christian areas, but for a third of those projects, there are no Christians to help. The believers in Nineveh, Iraq, have had less than 2 percent of their housing needs addressed, and the majority of Christians and Yazidis remain in shelters.

Projects that are supposedly marked “finished” have little more than a U.N. flag hung outside an unusable building, in many cases a school.

And while faith-based groups with proven track records and deep roots in these communities are more than willing to assist, the United Nations too often denies their funding requests. My friends, those days are over.

Our fellow Christians and all who are persecuted in the Middle East should not have to rely on multinational institutions when America can help them directly. And tonight, it is my privilege to announce that President Trump has ordered the State Department to stop funding ineffective relief efforts at the United Nations. And from this day forward, America will provide support directly to persecuted communities through USAID.

We will no longer rely on the United Nations alone to assist persecuted Christians and minorities in the wake of genocide and the atrocities of terrorist groups. The United States will work hand-in-hand from this day forward with faith-based groups and private organizations to help those who are persecuted for their faith.

This is good news indeed. While much of the focus in the Middle East has been on defeating ISIS, communities left devastated in its wake will need to rebuild and try to get on with their lives. For the Middle East’s Christian community, politically less powerful than other communities and often without a voice or advocate in the region’s larger decision-making, this is especially important. For too long, they haven’t received proper assistance in returning to their ancestral lands (the same lands the first Christians walked nearly 2,000 years ago), even while Iran and other power players try to come in and ply their influence in the vacuum created by ISIS’s defeat.

Is the Air Force Finished With People of Faith?

by Travis Weber

October 18, 2017

Is it really possible that the Air Force no longer has room for people of faith? Based on the matter of Colonel Bohannon, that may sadly be the case.

Leland Bohannon is a decorated colonel who has devoted decades of his life to serving our Air Force, including flying missions in the B-2 stealth bomber. He’s been ranked first on his performance reports, has been bestowed numerous honors, and trusted with oversight of nuclear weapons. In other words, he’s the model Air Force officer.

Yet Colonel Bohannon’s career may be flushed down the drain by the Air Force simply because of a subordinate who wanted approval of a same-sex marriage. When he was handed several awards and certificates to sign for the subordinate’s retirement ceremony, Colonel Bohannon signed all of them except a “certificate of spouse appreciation”—which he couldn’t in good conscience sign because the certificate was for a spouse of the same sex. He sought advice about what to do from his chaplain and attorney; the chaplain told him to ask for a religious accommodation. He submitted one but it was returned six weeks later “without action.” In the meantime, a major general offered to sign the certificate instead, and it was signed and presented to the subordinate. Yet when the subordinate saw that Colonel Bohannon was not the signatory, he filed an Equal Opportunity complaint against him, alleging discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

The EO investigator found that Col Bohannon violated Air Force regulations and “unlawfully discriminated against the MSgt based on sexual orientation.” The EO investigator recognized that a religious accommodation had been sought, but claimed that “even had the accommodation been granted, Col Bohannon would nonetheless be guilty of unlawful discrimination.”

As a result, his superior “suspended Col Bohannon from command, withheld his decoration, and submitted a letter to the Air Force Brigadier General promotion board—the rank for which Col Bohannon is eligible—recommending that Col Bohannon not be promoted.”

Not only is this entire side-show an absurd waste of time, it is clearly unlawful and unconstitutional. The EO investigator is apparently ignorant of the law in this area; if a religious accommodation is granted, that means by definition that he’s not “guilty of unlawful discrimination”—because he’s been granted an accommodation. Moreover, religious freedom law and military policy demand that he be granted an accommodation in an instance like this—where the objective is easily fulfilled with another signature on the certificate.

At best, this entire matter is a distraction for Colonel Bohannon. At worst, it could end his career. That’s the track this train is currently proceeding on.

Thankfully, our friends at First Liberty are on the case, and those in the media like Todd Starnes are calling attention to this. Let us hope the Air Force fixes the issue before the entire situation is derailed and the military environment only grows more toxic for people of faith. 

Iran Heightens Its Crackdown On Christians

by Daniel Hart

August 8, 2017

The Wilberforce Initiative is reporting that Iran is targeting Christians, re-sentencing them to lengthier jail times despite having already served their sentences. According to the report, Ebrahim Firouzi, a former Muslim who converted to Christianity, was re-sentenced to five additional years for trumped-up charges of “forming a group for disrupting national security” based on “the same evidence used in the previous court case for which he had already served his prison sentence.”

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has reported an uptick in arrests and imprisonments in the last four years of those who are a part of religious minorities in Iran. In the last month alone, “12 Christians have been sentenced to lengthy prison confinement for 10 years or more because of their faith,” according to World Watch Monitor.

Iran is a country of some 80 million predominantly Muslim inhabitants, of which only one percent are religious minorities. This includes about 300,000 Christians, some of whom are Armenian Christians who are considered to be born Christian and are generally not bothered by the Iranian regime. In a country that is over 99 percent Muslim, it is considered a crime to convert from Islam to Christianity, which can carry a death sentence.

With President Trump considering his options on how to pull out of the rashly devised Obama-era nuclear deal, it is also highly important for him to consider the tragic plight of Christians and other persecuted minorities who are languishing in Iranian prisons simply because of exercising their God-given right to freely follow their consciences.

Blasphemy Laws” Violate Religious Liberty

by Travis Weber

May 24, 2017

Yesterday, the Christian governor of Jakarta, Indonesia – Basuki Tjahaja Purnama – decided to drop the appeal of his blasphemy conviction, for which he will now serve two years in jail. The reason? Fears of the possibility that the sentence may be lengthened, and concerns about continued violent clashes between factions on different sides of the case. Whatever the precise reason (and criminal defendants often have several reasons factoring into their decision), allowing outside social pressure to affect the continued incarceration of Mr. Basuki is an absolute tragedy.

Blasphemy laws – aside from being a violation of the human right of freedom of religion – are notoriously abused to target political and social opponents. In the past, Indonesia hasn’t been at the center of such misuse – as has Pakistan – and for this reason such developments are all the more concerning. While Mr. Basuki is obviously entitled to make his own decision regarding his case, the circumstances surrounding it are a bad omen for the future of Indonesian democracy and rule of law in that country, and do not set a good precedent for standing up to hardline Islamists favoring such laws.

The application of the laws themselves to people like Mr. Basuki – who though not Muslim was charged and convicted (and sentenced beyond what the prosecutor even asked for!) of the religious crime after he cited a Quranic verse in public debate (and after radical Muslims protested) – is bad enough. This is a human rights problem. It compounds the problem when such laws are abused and taken advantage of to eliminate political opponents – which is a rule of law problem. Both issues need to be corrected in Indonesia (and other places) going forward.

The Plight of Jews in Pakistan

by Chris Gacek

April 10, 2017

There are occasions when a simple act provides tremendous clarity about a much larger situation. Such an event took place last week in Pakistan, a country of approximately 200 million that has had a history of religious freedom violations.

According to our State Department, “[t]he [Pakistani] constitution establishes Islam as the state religion, and requires all provisions of the law to be consistent with Islam.” In fact, the constitution establishes a “Federal Shariat Court” whose Muslim judges “examine and decide whether any law or provision is ‘repugnant to the injunctions of Islam.’” Additionally, Pakistan has draconian “blasphemy” laws that are used to persecute Christians and other religious minorities on fabricated charges. Such laws obviously make free discussion of religious thought about Islam virtually impossible.

Ninety-five percent of Pakistan is Muslim (70 percent Sunni, 25 percent Shia). The remaining five percent is made up of Hindus, Christians, Parsis / Zoroastrians, Bahais, Ahmadi Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Kalasha, Kihals, and Jains. Apparently, there are too few Jews to note statistically. Citizens of Pakistan must register their religious affiliation with the government.

According to a recent report in the Jerusalem Post, a 29-year-old Pakistani man named Fischel Benkald was informed last week that as he had requested, “the religious status in his National Database and Registration Authority profile [would] be changed from Muslim to Jew…” Mr. Benkald is the first Pakistani citizen to be permitted to change his religious status from Muslim to Jew since the 1980s.

Benkald’s birth name was Faisal, and he was raised in Karachi by a Jewish mother and a Muslim father. He was also allowed to assume a Yiddish first name, “Fischel.” The change in religious affiliation was requested three years ago, and might very well have been denied without intervention from forces outside Pakistan. Wilson Chowdry, the chairman of the British Pakistani Christian Association, plead Benkald’s case with the Pakistani High Commission in London (i.e., the Pakistani embassy to the United Kingdom in London).

The national identity card is critical to all aspects of life for Pakistanis seeking to interact with their government. According to the Post, it “contains one’s name, date of birth, photo, a thumbprint and religion.”

The lack of religious freedom for anyone but Muslims is extreme in Pakistan. Christians are persecuted, but Jews historically received even worse treatment. Anti-Semitism caused Jews to flee the nation after the Israeli War for Independence and that nation’s founding in 1948. It is believed that there were over a thousand Jews in Karachi seventy years ago. Now there are virtually none. Mr. Chowdry told the Post that “hundreds of Jews are now living secretly in Pakistan.”

Apparently, Mr. Benkald did not assert in his application that an outright religious conversion from Islam had taken place. In effect, he claimed that he was in a distinct, exceptional category: “Benkald argue[d] that he never left Islam because he was born to a Jewish mother and therefore ha[d] always been Jewish.” This is true as Jews would define the matter. For whatever reason, the authorities approved his application, but his troubles are far from over.

The Post noted a Fox News story that said “a 2010 Pew survey found that 76 percent of Pakistanis advocate the death penalty for leaving Islam.” Hopefully, he will be left in peace or somehow be able to seek refuge in Israel. That said, a country in which religious conversion holds a significant probability of death or injury is not a country that allows any appreciable religious liberty regardless of any constitutional rhetoric to the contrary.

In any case, one has to greatly admire Mr. Benkald’s amazing bravery while praying for his safety. Western nations who cherish religious freedom, as well as Israel, should keep an eye out for him and his family.

Christianity in Iraq Appears Doomed to Extinction

by Chris Gacek

April 4, 2017

The condition of Christianity in the Middle East may now be as imperiled as it has been at almost any time in the last 2,000 years. This is particularly true in Iraq, according to Canon Andrew White, who led St. George’s Church in Baghdad. St. George’s was the only Anglican Church in Iraq before its closure was ordered by the Archbishop of Canterbury in November 2014.

Canon White believes, with considerable justification from public statements made by ISIS and its innumerable acts of rape, torture, and murder, that the terrorist group intends to drive the “infidel” Christians out of the region. Before he fled Iraq over two years ago, White was part of a community of Christians that had decreased from 1.4 million (some thirty years ago), to 1 million when Saddam Hussein was toppled by allied forces in 2003, to a quarter of a million today.

The plight of Jews in Iraq is a sobering foreshadowing of what may happen soon to Christians. The Jewish population has declined cataclysmically since World War II—to essentially nothing. This marks the demise of a people that traced its lineage in Iraq back to the Babylonian Captivity described in the Old Testament after the fall of Jerusalem. A substantial Jewish community lived in that land with great success for two millennia. In 1947, there appear to have been 156,000 Jews in Iraq. Today, there are virtually no Jews in the country—fewer than ten live in Baghdad at present. Thus, complete population extinctions that are not caused by disease can take place.

White described the situation for Christians as follows: “The time has come where it is over, no Christians will be left. Some say Christians should stay to maintain the historical presence, but it has become very difficult. The future for the community is very limited.”

The stories of persecution and killing (in some cases by crucifixion) of Christians to compel their conversion to Islam are commonplace. The level of barbarism can hardly be described with any word other than “demonic.”

Clearly, past tolerance for non-Islamic communities and the older social order has been shattered. Consequently, even if ISIS is destroyed, the Shiite-Iranian dominated groups that will control Iraq in their place do not seem especially friendly to Christians. Ignatius Joseph III Younan, Patriarch of the Syriac Catholic Church of Antioch, points to a deep intellectual flaw in the nature of Islamic thought as the problem: “totalitarianism based on Islamic creed is the worst among all systems of government.” He goes on to observe that “the very survival of Christians in the cradle of Christianity is quite in danger.”

The United States government is not without some influence in the area. Although nobody seems to know it, the U.S. has over 10,000 service members fighting in Syria and Iraq. However, our foreign policy establishment has made little effort to require protections for religious minorities. The Trump administration must go in a new direction. For example, President al-Sisi of Egypt met President Trump yesterday while Coptic Christians are undergoing severe persecution in Egypt. The United States has sufficient leverage with Egypt regarding military and financial aid to ensure that this persecution is greatly reduced, if not eliminated. Syria and Iraq are more complicated given the anarchy that exists there now, but our government needs to make this a priority. 

There are excellent non-governmental organizations working in Irbil, now part of an inchoate Kurdish homeland, who will gladly work with us to save the ancient populations of Yazidis and Christians. However, for this to happen, we have to give these concerns priority in our foreign policy reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s blending of human rights considerations with traditional diplomatic and military policies. It was a world-changing combination that, if incorporated today, could make Mr. Trump a successful foreign policy president.

One Year Anniversary of the United States Declaring ISIS’ Actions to be Genocide

by Travis Weber

March 17, 2017

One year ago today, Secretary of State John Kerry declared ISIS’ actions against Christians, Yezidis, and others in Iraq and Syria to be genocide. The declaration was widely hailed, and was a helpful step in the right direction, but has produced little positive change on the ground.

In the year since, as veteran religious freedom advocate Nina Shea explains, those suffering genocide have continued to point out their dire situation. But it still has not been addressed in a manner corresponding to its gravity.

This was part of the focus yesterday at an event hosted by the group In Defense of Christians at the U.S. Capitol, which featured commentary from many speakers honoring this important declaration one year out. Members of Congress Jeff Fortenberry and Anna Eshoo, who led the way in getting Congress to label this a genocide several days before the State Department’s declaration a year ago, were present and offered remarks. The event also featured the stories of genocide survivors and those directly working with them.

One Yezidi woman told of her experience being held as a slave by ISIS. Another advocate told of the horrific trauma experienced by those even after they are liberated. One boy, suffering severely after his father had been killed by ISIS, tried to kill himself several times in a displaced persons camp. This latest time, the boy doused himself in gasoline, wrapped himself in blankets, and set himself on fire. His internal trauma was so severe he made no sound as he burned. His younger brother, standing nearby with his back turned, only became aware of what was going on once he smelled burning gas. He ran over and patted out the fire with his hands. By that time, both were badly burned, but alive.

As testified to yesterday, masses of these traumatized children in the camps have already been brainwashed by ISIS to kill themselves in service of violent jihad. They are walking time-bombs, waiting to be taken advantage of and used to wreak future violence and mayhem, while senselessly taking their own lives in the process. They are in the camps now, but we must reach them before it is too late.

These stories are only some of many which show a pattern of the horrific effects of ISIS’ genocide.

As was also mentioned at yesterday’s event, there is hope that the new administration will turn its attention to the plight of these genocide survivors, which have already been neglected for far too long. It is not too late, but we must act now.

The Refugee Implications of President Trump’s Executive Orders

by Travis Weber

March 13, 2017

This is Part 3 of a 3-part series. Here are Parts 1 and 2.

On March 6, President Trump signed a revised executive order restricting entry to the United States from certain countries, which followed heated controversy and legal battles arising from the initial executive order temporarily halting entry to the United States for certain groups of people. In light of the new order, and in the wake of the controversy surrounding the issue more broadly, it’s helpful to separate the multiple issues—often conflated with one another—playing a part in this discussion. One of these issues is the impact of the orders on refugees—who, though only one of the multiple groups affected—have occupied much of the discussion.

Issue #3: On Refugees – Good Arguments Require Precision

Putting aside the media hysterics and negligent or willful abuse of Scripture, there are many who are attempting to engage in well-meaning discussion of these orders and the immigration issue more broadly. Unfortunately, many people protesting President Trump’s actions do not really understand how the immigration system actually works, or what they would recommend if asked how to fix its security concerns. We all would benefit from learning before speaking into the haze and fog of this debate, and should go back to the actual sources. In this case, that is the initial executive order, and the new executive order.

What do the orders say?

Section 3 of the initial order covered the suspension of all visas to individuals from certain countries, and Section 5 covered the suspension of the refugee program. The other sections direct various actions to improve immigration security generally. Exactly what among these provisions is objectionable (and how) is often quickly lost in this discussion, and consequently, is often lost on many who seem to generally oppose the order.

The new order removes Iraq from the list of countries, removes the indefinite ban on Syrian refugees, and takes out language which prioritized those for admission who were persecuted for their faith. It also doesn’t ban lawful U.S. permanent residents, or prevent people from entering the United States traveling on valid visas already issued. The new order also lays out policy reasons for why this action has been taken.

Aside from the removal of protections for religious minorities (which would have been helpful to leave in—for the United States already considers religion in refugee law, and these minorities are in dire need of our help), the refugee admissions provisions remain virtually unchanged between the two executive orders.

Use of the term “refugee”

Throughout this immigration debate, the term “refugee” is often used carelessly. But it has a precise meaning in U.S. law. Individuals entering the United States can do so under a number of visa programs or claim asylum. Entering as a refugee is covered by a specific program, and this program is covered only by Section 5 of the initial order and Section 6 of the new order (the other provisions of the orders cover other avenues of entry). When we speak of “refugees” legally, we refer to people entering through this program. This does not include immigrants entering through other programs, crossing the border illegally, or even showing up at our border to claim asylum.

While many may agree that other elements of the orders and the immigration system overall (to include student and worker visas) certainly need scrutiny, there is a debate as to whether the refugee program alone can be improved, or whether we will achieve quite minimal gains from restricting access through this program while at the same time harming those who need our protection. There are arguments for and against the refugee restrictions in the orders.

Arguments for the refugee restrictions

It is clear that some Muslims with terrorist ties have entered the United States through our refugee program (and the new order notes that more than 300 people who entered the United States as refugees are currently under terrorism investigations by the FBI). Additionally, while vetting for refugees is already rigorous, the Obama administration accelerated the number of people who entered the country near the end of the term. In these circumstances, it’s a reasonable approach to ask how that was done. Some may claim that the vetting is already as strict as possible, and there is always the risk that terrorists slip through. New developments call for new assessments; we are aware, for instance, that Yezidi girls who have been rescued from ISIS captivity are still in touch with their captors due to Stockholm Syndrome. Have we accounted for the risk that one of them might maintain contact once given safe haven in the United States? It is a reasonable position for a U.S. citizen to want to continue to assess security risks until they are addressed.

Moreover, we must be prudent and remain aware of the motivations of different actors. Some large refugee assistance groups may see funding cut under the orders, and it is understandable if they feel pressure to oppose them for that reason in addition to their convictions regarding refugees. At a minimum they have a conflict of interest on this point.

Additionally, we should be careful of a mentality which assumes that large-scale immigration is most helpful to people. Many displaced persons overseas want to stay in their countries. Solutions which help create peace and stability where they live are just as helpful, if not more so, than uprooting them to bring them to a different culture in the United States. Those arguing for widespread and aggressive immigration on grounds of compassion should ensure they are not assuming it is the only compassionate solution.

Arguments against the refugee restrictions

While the executive orders contain many provisions that will improve security overall in the visa-granting process, those halting the refugee program may do little to improve security, while stunting an important program for those fleeing persecution. The United States is currently vulnerable to terrorists seeking to exploit different avenues of entry: H1Bs, student visas, and claims to asylum, for instance. The refugee program, in which vetting occurs outside the country, is the last place terrorists would go if they were trying to enter the United States.

While Europe has experienced difficulty due to increasing numbers of refugees, the situation is not analogous to that of the United States, as the way refugees enter the United States mitigates many of those risks Europe faces. The term “refugee” has been applied to those flooding into Europe but it is inaccurate to think of those same people as refugees to the United States—a point I discuss above. If these people flooded our shores like they’ve done to Europe’s, they would be asylum seekers, not refugees covered by the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). To enter the United States through the USRAP, a potential refugee first has to go to a country where he or she can apply through the United Nations, go through the UN process, then be chosen by the UN to be resettled in the United States (the UN picks their country of resettlement, not the refugee). This process often takes four years. Thus, if people are concerned about “refugees” arriving and “flooding” our shores, they are not really concerned about refugees as that term is used in law and policy (and the USRAP), but are concerned about other types of entrants—either asylum seekers, or those entering illegally.

While the risk of a terrorist entering through the USRAP is not zero, compared to other avenues of entry, it’s much more difficult and terrorists are much less likely to use it. A significant area of risk is the database system used to assess refugees, which could be bolstered and improved; but fixing this may not require a pause in the USRAP program as the orders require. While we obtain a bare minimum of security gains by restricting the USRAP, the argument goes, we cause significant suffering to those who do need our help. In Lebanon, for instance, Christian Syrian women are prostituting themselves and selling their daughters into child marriages to survive. These people need our help, and we shouldn’t shut off their lifeline when the security risks of that lifeline are already minimal. We should address any security risk as soon as possible so we can get our refugee program back up and running so it can help those it is meant to help.

Conclusion

The initial executive order was not without its problems. It seems that the roll out and implementation could have been accomplished more smoothly. There were reports of lawful permanent residents and U.S. military translators being held up; these matters should have been addressed before the order was issued to avoid confusion. By now, certain steps have been taken to smooth out some of these bumps, but they could have been addressed from the beginning. Thankfully, the new executive order does not bar holders of valid visas or lawful permanent residents from entering the United States, and the new order will take effect on March 16 (hopefully allowing for smooth roll out and implementation), as opposed to the initial order which took effect immediately.

These changes in the new order go a long way toward fixing some of the problems in the initial one, though obviously many will still disagree about immigration policy more broadly. At the end of the day, we should acknowledge that reasonable people (including fellow Christians) may disagree about immigration policy and the executive orders (including their refugee provisions).

Reaching that conclusion alone would go a long way toward promoting rational discourse and easing the emotional gridlock in the public debate on this and other issues.

President Trump’s Executive Orders on Immigration: Religious Freedom and Other Implications

by Travis Weber

March 9, 2017

This is Part 1 of a 3-part series.

On Monday, President Trump signed a revised Executive Order restricting entry to the United States from certain countries, which followed heated controversy and legal battles arising from the initial Executive Order (EO) temporarily halting entry to the United States for certain groups of people. In light of the new order, and in the wake of the controversy surrounding the issue more broadly, it’s helpful to separate the multiple issues—often conflated with one another—playing a part in this discussion. The relationship of refugee and immigration policy to international religious freedom advocacy, in particular, has revealed some glaring hypocrisies and deficiencies over the course of the recent public debate.

Issue #1: Media Hysteria

People of good will can disagree on immigration policy. Christians may disagree among themselves on what to do. It’s not a simple topic, and those on various sides of different discussions should work out how their religious beliefs—if they hold any—apply to their position.

But the absolute hysteria of the media on this issue doesn’t help rational discourse, and only further discredits an already-discredited institution. Do we really believe President Obama would have been subjected to similar treatment if he had issued anything close to what President Trump did? Everyone knows the hype purportedly about immigration is really just a political statement about President Trump—and this discredits the media and distracts from a worthwhile conversation in which people on both sides may wish to engage.

It is worth observing that many of the same news organizations and advocacy groups getting worked into a tizzy about immigration are absent and silent on the issue of ongoing religious persecution around the world. Where were many of these suddenly zealous religious discrimination advocates when, year-after-year, those of various faiths were persecuted and even killed around the world? Where were they in calling for the release of Pastor Saeed Abedini in Iran, and Meriam Ibrahim in Sudan? Where were they when others labored tirelessly to help fix troubled hotspots? Where were they in calling attention to the need for “safe zones” in the same areas from which many are fleeing to Western Europe and the United States (which by their inaction arguably helped create the horrible conditions in the Middle East)? Indeed, many refugees would prefer to stay where they are, but are forced to flee due to horrific circumstances (including a lack of religious freedom) where they live.

Would immigration advocates work to stop the international religious freedom problems that are causing increasing refugee flows in the first place? Or could they care less about that as long as our borders remain open?

Just this month, Open Doors USA hosted a press conference detailing what is happening to Christians around the world. Many of the same news outlets and advocacy groups claiming a responsibility to love the foreigner were absent from this press event where persecution of foreigners was discussed.

A dose of humility and fair-mindedness, along with a more charitable and rational approach to this discussion, would go a long way toward solving whatever other issues are tangled up in this debate.

Part 2 will discuss the Christian perspective on immigration.

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