Christians In the Middle East and the American Dream

The current uprising in Egypt is troubling many Christians throughout the region, but it is not a stand alone incident. Pope Benedict XVI’s New Year’s message highlighted anti-Christian violence in the Middle East. French President Nicolas Sarkozy even declared that Christians there were victims of “religious cleansing.” Mobs have sacked churches and attacked Christian throughout the region. This is the latest round of Muslim-on-Christian violence that has been escalating for decades. A Muslim Brotherhood takeover in Egypt, a distinct possibility, would be very hostile to the millions of Christians living there.

The pope also noted that many Middle Eastern Christians seek to emigrate and escape the violence. Sadly, American immigration laws prevent most Christians from seeking safety in the U.S. Changing our immigration laws could save many of their lives, and help America, too.

Egypt’s Coptic Christians have borne the brunt of religious violence. A suicide bomber in Alexandria killed 21 Copts and injured more than 90 in early January. In Iraq, similar violence against Chaldean Christians and Catholics has decimated their numbers. Two weeks ago, an off-duty Egyptian police officer killed a 71 year-old Christian man and wounded five Christian women. Worryingly, police sometimes sit idly by as Muslim mobs attack Christians. Political violence in Egypt might fuel further religious violence.

Anti-Christian violence is not new to the Middle East. The Armenian genocide, which killed more than 1 million Armenian Christians (perhaps many more), was heavily motivated by religious strife. Over the last 100 years, sectarian violence throughout the region has sent millions of refugees streaming across borders.

The United States has a long history of welcoming religious refugees. The Pilgrims fled the Netherlands to settle in Massachusetts. Irish Catholics escaped English oppression for the promise of America. Eastern European Jews increasingly came after violent anti-Semitic pogroms in the late 19th century drove them out of their homes. Many Armenians fled genocide and war to settle in California. But then America changed its immigration laws.

Before 1921, America was the world’s safety net for religious refugees. But that year, the federal government imposed the nation’s first immigration quotas removing the last hope for many millions of people seeking to flee dictatorship, war, and genocide. That helped create the complicated, dysfunctional, and expensive federal immigration bureaucracy we know today.

Those restrictions led to the U.S. government’s shameful turning away of ships full of German Jews fleeing Nazi Germany.

After World War II, the government changed its policies and began to accept more refugees. But even now, only 80,000 are to be allowed entry in 2011-including a mere 37,000 from the Middle East and South Asia. In a real emergency, that quota is too puny.

The burden should be on the government to prove that a refugee is a threat, not on the refugee to prove his well-founded fear of persecution. Many persecuted people make it to the U.S. to seek asylum, but are returned or held in limbo due to legal minutiae. For Iraqi refugees, court and processing delays range from 12 to 21 months, affecting about 25,000 refugee seekers according to the advocacy group Human Rights First. Refugees who are not criminals, suspected terrorists, or infected with transmittable deadly diseases should be allowed entry into the U.S. without numerical cap.

Letting today’s refugees resettle in the U.S. is not an act of charity. Allowing persecuted Christians from Muslim lands to move here could bolster American intelligence. Middle Eastern Christians know Arabic and local cultures, skills severely lacking in U.S. intelligence agencies a decade after 9/11. Arabic is a notoriously difficult language to learn and the cultural nuances of the Muslim world often confound Western analysts.

They would also bring large economic benefits. If current Middle Eastern Christian immigrants are any indicator, refugees from that part of the world will be entrepreneurial, educated, and willing to assimilate into American society. Importantly, there is already a large Middle Eastern Christian community in the U.S. that could help them adjust. The same applies to religious refugees from China and North Korea.

Ideally, religious violence against Christians in the Middle East will cease. If Egypt descends into anarchy or an anti-Christian regime takes power there, the U.S. should prepare for the worst –especially when allowing in more victims of religious persecution benefits Americans.

Under today’s refugee rules, the Pilgrims would not be allowed to settle here because they were relatively unmolested in The Netherlands. Any law that would deny our forefathers and ancestors the right to immigrate here needs to be changed.