AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
President Trump is promising to give priority to Christian refugees fleeing persecution, yet some of the strongest criticism of his executive order is coming from Christian leaders themselves. Some say the temporary ban on refugees challenges the Christian ethic of welcoming the stranger. Others worry that favoring Christians over other immigrants could actually backfire. Here's NPR's Tom Gjelten.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Among the Christian groups criticizing President Trump's executive order are some who've been generally friendly to him. Eight evangelical leaders, including one who prayed at his inauguration, sent Trump a letter yesterday asking him to reconsider his suspension of refugee resettlement. Another clergyman who prayed to Trump's inauguration, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, told reporters yesterday that the executive order at first blush causes us some apprehension.
TIMOTHY DOLAN: But we're looking forward to studying it, and we look forward to hearing the experts who work for us in the next couple days to say, here's what it says; here's the trouble it's going to cause, and here's what we need to do about it.
GJELTEN: Dolan is a longtime Trump friend. Other Catholic leaders were much harsher in their assessment of the executive order. That criticism from the Christian world is notable because President Trump said he'll give special attention to Christian refugees. The executive order itself doesn't mention Christians by name, saying only that members of religious minorities will be given priority treatment. But in an interview last week with the Christian Broadcasting Network, Trump specifically said he sees Christians as a priority because they've been horribly treated.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: If you were a Christian in Syria, it was impossible, very, very - at least very, very tough to get into the United States. If you were a Muslim, you could come in, but if you were a Christian, it was almost impossible.
GJELTEN: Actually, now it'll be completely impossible. Under Trump's executive order, all refugees from Syria including Christians are barred from the United States indefinitely. As for refugee law generally, it's not as though someone can qualify for refugee status simply by being a Christian.
PAUL ROSENZWEIG: The core of being a refugee is having a reasonable fear of persecution.
GJELTEN: Paul Rosenzweig is a law professor at George Washington University and an official in the Department of Homeland Security under George W. Bush.
ROSENZWEIG: If you cannot demonstrate that then you're not entitled to get any status at all.
GJELTEN: It's a case-by-case determination, a Christian who wants to come to the United States but cannot demonstrate that he or she faces persecution back home will not get special treatment. Christians have been persecuted widely in the Middle East, especially in areas under the control of ISIS. But even those organizations most supportive of beleaguered Christians have mixed feelings about prioritizing them over others facing persecution. David Curry, president of Open Doors USA, worries that putting Christians in a favored category could actually make things worse for them.
DAVID CURRY: What might exacerbate the challenges is if this is seen and interpreted as a religious test to get into America, they'll use that as an excuse to attack Christians even further.
CURRY: Curry's organization advocates giving priority simply to those people most in need of refuge, whether Christians or minority Muslims or Yazidis. Andrew Doran, senior policy adviser for the Organization in Defense of Christians, thinks the priority should be on preserving Christian communities in the Middle East. He'd like to see more of an effort to protect them where they now live.
DOLAN: It's very important for these Syrians to be safe, protected, and the best way to this is for a U.S.-led international coalition to establish protected zones.
GJELTEN: As recently as last week President Trump was saying he'd support the establishment of safe zones in Syria, that proposal was in an earlier draft of his executive order but it was omitted in the final version. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.