Religious liberty key to refugee crisis, leaders say
Antonio Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and Robert George, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, addressed the worst refugee disaster since World War II during an Oct. 27 event sponsored by USCIRF.
Nearly 60 million people worldwide were forcibly displaced from their homes at the close of 2014, according to UNHCR. Syria leads the way with more than 7.6 million people uprooted within the Middle Eastern country and more than 4 million registered refugees in other countries.
The involvement of religious issues in the refugee crisis in Syria and elsewhere is striking, George told the audience. The repressive role of a religious group against other religious adherents in such disasters can be seen not only in Syria but in Burma, the Central African Republic, Eritrea, Nigeria and Pakistan, he said.
Humanitarian aid is needed immediately, but the other required response, George said, should be: "Stand for religious freedom whenever and wherever it is under threat and assault."
Respect for human rights, including religious liberty, is important for humanitarian reasons but also as part of the attempt to "push back against the instability and conflict" behind the refugee crisis, he said. "By standing for religious freedom, we are saying the following: The best way to solve the refugee crisis is to alleviate conditions that create refugees in the first place, the instability, the internal strife ..."
Guterres, nearing the close of his 10-year leadership of the UNHCR office, echoed George's advocacy for religious freedom in a conversation with USCIRF Vice Chairman Eric Schwartz that made up most of the 80-minute event.
"Religious freedom is an essential pillar to any democratic state," Guterres said.
When it comes to refugees, he told the audience, "[O]bviously, any form of religious persecution or discrimination is a central cause for refugee status to be granted and for refugee protection to be granted."
The plight of Christians in the Middle East -- where Christianity began -- is a great concern to him, Guterres said.
"To see those communities at the risk of being eradicated from that area is something that I consider with horror," he said, adding the international community must do all it can to make sure Christian communities are not "religiously cleansed."
The refugee crisis is both a sanctity of life and religious freedom issue, said Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
"Christians are to be a pro-life, whole-life people, standing up for the sanctity of human life whenever and wherever it is challenged," Moore said in written comments for Baptist Press. "The lives of these many refugees fleeing religious and ethnic oppression matter to our God, and so they should matter to us as well.
"I pray that our government in the United States and governments worldwide would respond to these people in need with compassion and wisdom, reminding all of us how precious religious freedom is and of the devastating consequences when it is repressed."
Many Christians and other religious minorities are vastly underrepresented in resettlement in the United States because of the U.N. refugee process relied upon by the federal government, said former USCIRF commissioner Nina Shea.
The United States depends on a U.N. resettlement program that "disproportionately excludes" Syrian religious minorities, she wrote in a Nov. 2 commentary for National Review. One reason for this is the UNHCR mostly refers refugees for resettlement from its camps, and non-Muslims seek to avoid such camps and enter church-operated camps instead, Shea said. Religious minorities avoid the UNHCR camps because Islamic terrorists reportedly infiltrate them and kidnap and kill Christians, Yazidis and others.
Christians have made up only 2.6 percent of the more than 2,000 Syrian refugees admitted to this country since that country's civil war began nearly five years ago, Shea said. Christians made up 10 percent of Syria's population before the conflict, she wrote.
The Obama administration has announced it will increase the annual refugee resettlement ceiling from 70,000 in recent years to 85,000 in 2016. USCIRF has urged the administration to increase the limit to at least 100,000.
With the increase in the refugee quota, "it would be unconscionable to continue with a process that has consistently forsaken some of the most defenseless and egregiously persecuted of those fleeing Syria," Shea wrote.
The intrusion by the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has exacerbated conditions in Syria, which already was afflicted by a conflict between the government of Bashar al-Assad and opposition forces that divided Muslim groups.
To solve the Syrian crisis, Guterres said:
-- Countries with influence -- the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran -- must reach a "common understanding on how to stop this;"
-- Massive investment in the region must occur to help Syria's neighbors, such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey that are overwhelmed by refugees;
-- Europe, which has been "very dysfunctional" in response to the attempted influx of Syrian exiles, must mobilize to make certain refugees are "properly received, properly assisted;"
-- Values such as tolerance and understanding the importance of diversity must be promoted.
While many Syrian refugees have fled to neighboring countries, hundreds of thousands are imperiling their lives in an effort to reach Europe. Some have drowned in the attempt.
"Most of these people are fleeing extremely dramatic circumstances," Guterres said. "And if there's an opportunity to risk their lives, they will risk their lives to try to reach a solution for their plight."