Deporting Iraqi Christians called 'death sentence'

WASHINGTON (BP) -- Southern Baptist religious freedom advocate Russell Moore has joined other evangelical leaders in urging the Trump administration to stop its deportation of Christians to Iraq.

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Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), and six others asked John Kelly, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, in a letter Monday (June 19) to end the deportations until Iraq's government can protect religious minorities. Recent reports have indicated the federal government has started the process of deporting Chaldean Christians back to their homeland, where the United States government has designated the murderous campaign of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) as genocide.

"We write urgently and with grave concern that Christians will be removed from the United States to face potential persecution, and even death, in the Middle East," said the leaders, who represent the seven organizations that are members of the Evangelical Immigration Table (EIT).

While the letter signers said they are encouraged by the Trump administration's emphasis on protecting the rights of religious minorities globally, they requested the administration "exercise the discretion available under law to defer the deportation of Chaldeans who pose no threat to U.S. public safety to Iraq until such time as the situation in Iraq stabilizes and its government proves willing and capable of protecting the rights of religious minorities."

They urged Kelly "to take the same approach to any individual, regardless of whether they share our Christian faith or not, who does not pose a threat to the safety of Americans and for whom deportation would be likely to result in persecution, torture, or death."

The United States deported some Iraqis to their home country in April and is scheduled to deport about 1,400 more, according to Christianity Today.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials arrested about 40 Chaldean Christians June 11 in the Detroit metro area, the Detroit Free Press reported. Chaldean Christians fear they will be targets of Islamic extremists if deported to Iraq.

Moore told Baptist Press, "This is wrong, wrong, wrong. Deporting these Iraqi Christians is nothing less than a death sentence.

"I cannot understand how our government could act so cruelly and counter-productively to some of the most vulnerable people in the world," he said in written comments. "These deportations should be stopped immediately. We should be protecting these imperiled people, not surrendering them up for execution."

Also signing onto the letter were: Samuel Rodriguez, president, National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference; Leith Anderson, president, National Association of Evangelicals; Scott Arbeiter, president, World Relief; Shirley Hoogstra, president, Council for Christian Colleges and Universities; Hyepin Im, president, Korean Churches for Community Development; and Jo Anne Lyon, ambassador and general superintendent emerita, The Wesleyan Church. EIT is a coalition of evangelical organizations supporting immigration reform.

The EIT letter cites comments by Vice President Mike Pence in making its appeal to the administration. According to the letter, Pence said at a global summit in May on Christian persecution, "[I]n Iraq, at the hands of extremists, we've actually seen monasteries demolished, priests and monks beheaded, and the two-millennia-old Christian tradition in Mosul virtually extinguished overnight."

Iraq had not received deportees from the U.S. since 2010 but agreed earlier this year to do so to be removed from President Trump's temporary travel ban, Christianity Today reported.

The letter signers acknowledge at least some of the Iraqis facing deportation have committed crimes.

"We do not minimize the serious criminal offenses of which some of these individuals have been convicted; it is entirely appropriate that they be punished for their offenses," the letter says. "However, having served their sentences, we must seriously consider whether it is just to deport a person who poses little risk to the American public to a situation where they are likely to experience significant harm because of their faith."

The U.S. House of Representatives approved legislation June 6 to aid Christians and other survivors of the genocide committed by ISIS and to bring the perpetrators to justice. The bill, which still requires Senate approval before going to Trump, would provide humanitarian aid to Christians, Yazidis, Shia Muslims and other religious and ethnic minorities in the two Middle East countries. It also would promote criminal investigations and prosecutions of the terrorists responsible for genocidal acts and crimes against humanity.

In March 2016, then-Secretary of State John Kerry designated the terrorist campaign by ISIS against Christians and other religious minorities as genocide. No ISIS member has been tried for genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes since then, religious freedom advocates have said.

ISIS' terror campaign in the Middle East has included execution, rape and sexual enslavement. Other ISIS atrocities cited by religious liberty advocates include torture, mass graves, assassination of religious leaders and the destruction of churches, monasteries and cemeteries.

Violence by Islamic extremists since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 has resulted in an exodus from the country by many Christians and other religious adherents. The number of professing Christians in that country has declined by death and displacement from as much as 1.4 million to less than 300,000, according to estimates.

Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.
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