Syrian refugees, redux: This time, AP remembers to ask religious leaders

Last week I criticized the Associated Press for writing about Syrian Christian refugees without talking to any Christians. (Thinking back, I don’t think they talked to Syrians either.) Well, AP finally got around to asking not only Christians but those of a range of faiths. And they did a beautiful job. Especially compared to some stories I could mention.

The background, of course, is the public anxiety over President Barack Obama's plans to bring in 10,000 or more refugees from the Syrian civil war over the next year. In the wake of the recent attacks in Paris, and reports that cells of terrorists are dotted all over Europe, many Americans worry that some of the killers may enter the country posing as refugees.

This is a story on which religious groups have clear viewpoints, and Godbeat pro Rachel Zoll of AP rounds up those perspectives. She samples views of Protestants, Catholics, Jews and even an American Muslim group. Her thorough report shows a remarkable consensus among them.

The top of the story could hardly be better:

In rare agreement across faith and ideological lines, leaders of major American religious groups have condemned proposed bans on Syrian refugees, contending a legitimate debate over security has been overtaken by irrational fear and prejudice.
Top organizations representing evangelicals, Roman Catholics, Jews and liberal Protestants say close vetting of asylum seekers is a critical part of forming policy on refugees. But these religious leaders say such concerns, heightened after the Paris attacks a week ago, do not warrant blocking those fleeing violence in the Middle East.
"The problem is not the Syrian refugees," said Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, who noted how his state has welcomed a large number of Cuban refugees over the years. "This is falling into the trap of what the terrorists wanted us to become. We shouldn't allow them to change who we are as a people."

I should say that it's great and not just (to be honest) because it mentions Wenski, whose archdiocesan newspaper is one of my freelance clients. Wenski, a South Florida native, has a long record of fighting for refugees and other immigrants, Haitians and Central Americans as well as Cubans. ("Immigrants work hard, assume responsibility and take risks — values that American society has always valued," he said at a press conference five years ago.) Zoll has clearly picked up on his stance.

Her article is a model of sweeping coverage and efficient writing. It gets views from Southern Baptist and evangelical leaders and asks United Methodist and Episcopal bishops alike.  It paraphrases stances of Jewish and Muslim organizations. And it does this and more within 865 words.

It's true that CNN did a little of this nearly a week ago. CNN majored on remarks by American Catholic bishops, with a quote from an evangelical leader and passing comments about Jews and Muslims. It also quoted Franklin Graham's fears about letting Muslims "come across our borders unchecked while we are fighting this war on terror."  But AP's is broader and has more direct quotes from a variety of traditions.

AP offers data on how much the government depends on faith groups to resettle refugees: They take care of about 70 percent, the story says. Also interesting: Most of the work is done by two groups, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services. Other players include Jewish and Methodist groups and the evangelical-aligned World Relief.

Best of all, the article uses moderate language on the opposition, who fear the idea of accepting terrorists along with the refugees. It cites survey figures showing that only 31 percent of white evangelicals want a boost in Syrian influx. And it non-sarcastically reports governors' concerns:

Lawmakers and more than half of U.S. governors, mostly Republicans, have said they were worried Islamic extremists may try to take advantage of the U.S. refugee process. Some governors are refusing Syrian refugee settlement in their states for now. They point to a passport found near the body of one of the Paris suicide bombers that had been registered along the route asylum seekers are taking through Europe. It's not clear how the passport ended up near the attacker.

To those concerns, the faith leaders speak pretty much in unison: Our religions are better than this. So is our nation, which has a long tradition of accepting the oppressed. I liked the terse reaction of United Methodist Bishop Scott Jones toward the Syrians: "We need to stand by them against the jihadist movement."  He says he knows 35 United Methodist congregations in Kansas and Nebraska willing to sponsor some.

And Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore scolds fellow evangelicals for their reticence: "Evangelicals should be the ones calling the rest of the world to remember human dignity and the image of God, especially for those fleeing murderous Islamic radical jihadis."

Checking with Jewish and Muslim groups was a good touch in this story. So is subdividing Jews as it does with Christians, mentioning Reform and Orthodox bodies.  

A comparative nitpick: The story mentions "the conservative Southern Baptist Convention." This comes close to the usual labeling of conservatives as on the fringe. The only reason I can imagine for including it here is to say, "Look! Moore is conservative, and he favors accepting Syrians!"

The AP article shines especially bright when you look at some others. The Houston Chronicle, for instance, loads up on snarkastic quotes against the anti-refugee point of view.

The Chronicle gives less than two paragraphs to presidential candidates Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz, who want to favor Christians among the Syrian refugees. Then the paper gets seven other voices -- Catholic, Lutheran, United Methodist and Presbyterian leaders, a couple of university professors, an officer of the National Council of Churches -- to pile onto him. They say the candidates are using "demagoguery," being "very un-Christian," using "discrimination based on religion."

The best, i.e. worst, example is Rebekah Miles, an ethicist with Southern Methodist University: “You would think one of their responsibilities would be to talk sense, to be moderate … But instead of calming, they’re inciting.” Oh, and she says religious leaders need to oppose "hate mongers."

Every so often, this 1,200-word piece makes a valid point. Its sources invoke the parable of the Good Samaritan and the Hebrew experience of being immigrants. They say that separating Muslim from Christian refugees amounts to a religious test. (Cruz denies that, but the Chronicle doesn't let him explain.) Meanwhile, there is this question: Why are so few Christian refugees getting into the U.S.?

A Lutheran bishop reminds us that the U.S. rebuffed Jewish refugees from Europe just before World War II. And a professor of Islamic studies says: “These people we’re talking about are not terrorists coming here to murder innocent Americans. They’re running from terror.”

So the pro-immigration folks are reasonable and idealistic, and their opponents are un-Christian, bigoted hatemongers. The Chronicle even arches an eyebrow at Cruz' spirituality, saying he "claims to have found God" at a Baptist church. As if it's their call to judge who has found God.

Read together, the two stories could make a good lesson in a journalism class. One gives you much to think about. The other tells you what to think.

Photo: Refugees wait at the border of Greece in September. Photographer: Ververidis Vasilis. Thumbnail photo: A young refugee at a volunteers' camp in Greece. Photo by Lukasz Z. Both photos via


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