Yo, Washington Post editors: Spot the religion ghost in that Syrian refugee crisis

Of the many agonizing news stories linked to the rise of the Islamic State, I have -- as an Eastern Orthodox Christian -- been paying quite a bit of attention to those focusing on the Jihadist persecution of a number of different groups of "infidels" and "crusaders." Click here, if you wish, for my Universal syndicate column on that topic.

This renewed persecution, especially the crushing of religious minorities in the Nineveh Plain region, has led to yet another wave of refugees fleeing ahead of the judges, swords and tanks of the Islamic State. In the case of the faithful in Christian flocks, it is logical to ask if these believers will ever be able to return to their destroyed homes, businesses and irreplaceable ancient sanctuaries.

In other words, will these refugees eventually need to seek asylum in new lands, perhaps noting that their lives are at risk because of their minority-faith status?

As you would imagine, I read with great interest the recent Washington Post report that ran under the headline, "U.S. to greatly expand resettlement for Syrian refugees." The key is the the Obama White House has approved plans to increase the number of Syrian refugees approved for resettlement here, but not the creation of a new program to do this.

The big question for me: How will U.S. officials find and process these refugees? Early in the story, readers are told:

The State Department is reviewing more than 4,000 applications from Syrian refugees seeking permanent homes in the United States next year or beyond, up from dozens considered for resettlement this year and last, officials said. The expansion reflects determinations by the United Nations refugee agency and the United States that tens of thousands of refugees living outside Syria are unlikely to ever be able to return.

The White House said Tuesday that it has approved permanent resettlement for up to 70,000 refugees worldwide next year, the same figure as for fiscal 2014. Up to 33,000 could be resettled from the Middle East and South Asia, including Syria.

If you know anything about issues of asylum and resettlement, you know that they key is how a government decides who to consider. How do people enter the pipeline to a new home?

The Post report is pretty specific about that:

... (The) U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has expanded the number of Syrians it screens for resettlement anywhere, including the United States. The UNHCR has said it sees no sign that the Syrian civil war will end soon enough to make a difference for hundreds of thousands of refugees living outside the country and that many will never be able to go home.

The overwhelming majority of refugees resettled in the United States are first identified as candidates by the UNHCR. The United States then does its own review. The UNHCR hopes to identify 50,000 for resettlement somewhere next year, and another 50,000 in 2016. ... 
Most Syrian refugees considered candidates for U.S. residency have been living in refugee camps or elsewhere outside Syria for a year or much longer.

This leads to a logical question: Who is, when push comes to shove, running these UNHCR camps? In particular, I was curious to know how this selection system would affect the cases of refugees who are part of oppressed religious minority groups. I decided to ask a veteran human-rights activist about that.

The response? Christians on the run have been avoiding these camps because they tend to be hostile to minority-faith refugees. In other words, these camps are run by those in majority forms of Islam, even if they have -- logically enough -- clashed with the radicalized Islamic State.

In other words, we have a major religion ghost in this story. It is likely that the current pipeline to safety is all but closed to Christians and members of other minority faiths in this ravaged region.

The Post report did, however, note that officials realize -- as they should, I stress -- that some groups in Syria (and what about Iraq?) are more vulnerable than others. Thus, the story ends with this note:

Some have experience working alongside Americans that makes them vulnerable to persecution by the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and others are members of particular vulnerable groups, such as single or widowed women or gays and lesbians.

What about minority-faith refugees who, in some cases, are being killed for their faith?

Stay tuned. Please let us know if you see other mainstream reports on the status of refugees in this region, especially those in minority religious groups who are facing brutal repression.

Photo with front-page excerpt: From the United Nations refugee agency.

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