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Closed America: The Decline of Christian Refugees

A Lament for the Rejection of Persecuted Christian Refugees and the Hardening of the American Soul
July 19, 2020
Closed America: The Decline of Christian Refugees
Tijuana's Archbishop Francisco Moreno Barron prays for migrants at the US-Mexico border fence in Tijuana, northwestern Mexico on March 19, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / GUILLERMO ARIAS (Photo credit should read GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP via Getty Images)

The number of Christian refugees from countries where Christians are persecuted has fallen 90% since 2015. World Relief and Open Doors USA released a report last Friday called Closed Doors: Persecuted Christians and the U.S. Refugee Resettlement and Asylum Processes detailing how the massive reduction in refugees coming to America has also dramatically affected the number of Christian refugees admitted.

With a historically low cap of 18,000 refugees for FY2020 and only 7,600 refugees admitted so far this year and most refugee resettlement currently halted, the plight of persecuted Christians hoping to enter the U.S. has become especially dire. According to the report, “fewer than 950 Christians have been resettled from these 50 countries [where Christians face the most severe persecution in the world], down from more than 18,000 in 2015.”

This trend is one with personal significance for me. As I grew up in evangelical churches, I always thought it was clear that we cared about persecuted Christians around the world. As an evangelical pastor for many years, I have been a part of presentations and prayer times for persecuted Christians. Reports from countries where Christians were persecuted were a mainstay of missions conferences and denominational meetings. The call to remember our brothers and sisters in the faith who suffered under brutal regimes and other religions and ideologies that saw Christianity as a threat was a constant.

One major component of caring for persecuted Christians from all over the world was the Refugee Resettlement Program. For decades, churches have participated in welcoming those from every religion (not just Christians) — or no faith at all — who have fled persecution from all over the world. Up until just a few years ago, there was a thriving network of churches, parachurch ministries, and non-profits across America that worked hard to welcome and help settle the eighty to ninety thousand refugees a year that came here.

As I traveled and worked with churches welcoming refugees, immigrants, and asylum seekers the past few years, I saw incredible vitality, diversity, and cooperation in their communities. Sadly, much of that welcoming ministry has halted because refugees have been kept from coming.

The World Relief and Open Doors report chronicles this shift.

Seeing a 90 percent reduction in the admission of persecuted Christians through the refugee program is jarring. While the United States is not the church and we are under no obligation to give priority to Christian refugees, to see our nation close the door on so many desperate people causes me to wonder about the soul of our country.

A hardening of heart toward the vulnerable seems to be taking further hold of us. Jesus said in Matthew 25:31-46 that nations would be judged by how they treat the hungry, poor, imprisoned, and those who are sojourners. Are they cared for and welcomed? Or, are they rejected, ignored, and cast out?

With only 5,000 refugee slots now allotted for those facing religious persecution, it isn’t just persecuted Christian refugees who have seen a marked decrease in admissions. The numbers are even worse for refugees adhering to other religions. Griffin Paul Jackson writes in Christianity Today, “Compared to 2015, U.S. resettlement of Baha’i from Iran, Muslims from Burma, and Yezidi from Iraq has decreased by 98 percent, 95 percent, and 92 percent, respectively.”

And, while Covid-19 is being used as a justification for halting refugee resettlement, that excuse isn’t really valid at this point. Refugees are vetted for years before arriving in the United States. It is now easy to test them for Covid-19, quarantine them, and release them after a time period has elapsed guaranteeing that they are not bringing the virus into the country. That is what we have historically done for immigrants arriving during times of concern over the spread of infectious disease. It can be done again.

Of course, these massive reductions reflect overall restrictions to immigration and refugee policies promoted in recent years. In addition to refugee reductions, we are now seeing the dismantling of the asylum system, a projected massive reduction in international students, a new ICE rule requiring international students to leave the country if their university doesn’t hold in person classes because of Covid-19 which the Trump Administration rescinded last Tuesday afternoon under pressure from advocates and universities, and young immigrant Dreamers continuing to wonder what will happen to them as DACA remains in jeopardy. America seems to have shut its doors.

I recognize that there are varied views on who should come here, how many, with what kinds of skills, and for what purpose. Much of this can be debated and worked through. But, part of that debate requires a recognition and awareness of what is happening and how we are changing as a nation. A profound transformation is underway that intends to shift us from a nation that had worked through past obstacles and barriers to become welcoming to the tired, poor, huddled masses, to a nation whose doors are essentially closed to all but the chosen that we perceive to be of direct benefit to us. I believe that this is a lamentable shift.

As I lament our closing of the door to refugees and the way we deal with vulnerable immigrants, there is a passage in the Bible from the book of Zechariah in chapter seven that comes to mind. The Jewish people were allowed to return to Israel from exile in Babylon after 538 BC by an edict of Cyrus the Great. While in exile, they developed several religious festivals to mark time and to pray for a return to national greatness. Upon their return they began to rebuild and they inquired of the prophet Zechariah if they needed to keep observing the festivals. Zechariah says that God really wanted them to do justice, show kindness and mercy, and to not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor or to plan evil in their hearts.

Sadly, the response of the people wasn’t great …

11 But they refused to pay attention and turned a stubborn shoulder and stopped their ears that they might not hear. 12 They made their hearts diamond-hard lest they should hear the law and the words that the Lord of hosts had sent by his Spirit through the former prophets. Therefore great anger came from the Lord of hosts. 13 “As I called, and they would not hear, so they called, and I would not hear,” says the Lord of hosts, 14 “and I scattered them with a whirlwind among all the nations that they had not known. Thus the land they left was desolate, so that no one went to and fro, and the pleasant land was made desolate.”

How we treat the vulnerable really matters. When individuals turn their backs on the needy around them, the result is a hardened heart and broken relationships. When a nation turns its back on the vulnerable begging for help, that same hardening affects the national consciousness.

Look, I’m just a pastor. I’m not a prophet, pundit, or politician. I am lamenting the positions that we have taken in recent years to reject persecuted Christian refugees, refugees of other backgrounds, and the growing hardness of heart that is manifesting in all of our dealings with each other. That hardness, left unchecked, invites the whirlwind of destruction upon our common bonds that will eventually leave us desolate as a nation. So, I’m lamenting that too.

Alan Cross

Alan Cross is a Southern Baptist pastor, writer, and author of When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesus, NewSouth Books, 2014.