On Syrian refugees, AP finds it easier to talk about Christians than to them

Ever hear people talk about you while you're standing right there? It comes close to that in an Associated Press story on whether to accept Syrian refugees into the United States.

"Should the U.S. admit Syrians only if they are Christian?" the headline says in Crux, the Catholic newsmagazine of the Boston Globe. AP talks to politicians. They quote government officials all the way up to President Obama. And they major, of course, on presidential candidates who brought up the issue in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris last week.

Who don’t they ask? That's right. Christians. For AP, the religious angle is just a front for politics:

The debate, which cuts straight to the American identity as a refuge, on Monday ranged from whether to only admit Syrians who are Christian to whether to close some mosques. But across the political landscape, caution intensified about vetting Syrian refugees and whether to allow them into the country at all.
GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump suggested in a MSNBC interview that he would “strongly consider” closing some mosques if elected. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said the United States should focus on admitting Christians. And GOP presidential contender Marco Rubio for the first time said the United States should no longer accept Syrian refugees because it’s impossible to know whether they have links to Islamic militants — an apparent shift from earlier statements in which he left open the prospects of migrants being admitted with proper vetting.

Oh yeah, something else must annoy you as much as me: when the gossip is vague and inaccurate. What does closing mosques have to do with Christian refugees? Does it sharpen focus to talk about turning away all refugees, Christian or not? And does Bush really want to admit only Syrians who are Christians?

Because that ain't what Bush said, according to AP -- even though the story has Obama saying he did:

Bush said Syrian Christians should be admitted to the United States, but only after proper vetting.
“I think our focus ought to be on the Christians who have no place in Syria anymore,” he added in NBC’s “Meet the Press.” ”They’re being beheaded, they’re being executed by both sides. And I think we have a responsibility to help.”
President Barack Obama condemned that approach as the opposite of American values.
“When I hear folks say that, well, maybe we should just admit the Christians but not the Muslims, when I hear political leaders suggesting that there would be a religious test for which person who’s fleeing from a war-torn country is admitted, when some of those folks themselves come from families who benefited from protection when they were fleeing political persecution, that’s shameful,” Obama said at the G-20 Summit in Antalya, Turkey. “That’s not American, it’s not who we are.”

Is focusing on Christian refugees the same as admitting them and banning Muslims? Is that what Bush meant? We sure won't know from this story, because the article moves on.

Let's turn to the Washington Post's account of his comments to CNN:

Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush says that any U.S. assistance to Middle Eastern refugees should focus primarily on Christians fleeing persecution.
"We should focus our efforts as it relates to refugees on the Christians that are being slaughtered," he told CNN's "State of the Union" in an interview on Sunday morning.

If you want the whole interview in context, here it is. I think you'll come away, as I did, saying that it sounds a lot less inflammatory than a "Christians Only" policy.

Part of the problem with the AP story is the irresponsible Crux headline, apparently inspired by Obama's distortion. The original headline, which you can see on AP's own website, is a non-pejorative "Syrian refugee policy takes focus in US 2016 politics."  But AP could have also asked Bush if he really means to exclude non-Christian Syrians. Otherwise, it's like they're talking about Bush with him in the room, too.

The article sounds more accurate about the other candidates. "There's no way to background check someone that's coming from Syria," Rubio says. And Carson says all Syrians should be turned away because jihadis might enter and start "wreaking havoc in this country."

AP then says that Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley want the U.S. to take more than the 10,000 Syrians that Obama has pledged to accept. And one of the longer quotes comes from Ben Rhodes, a national security adviser, who says the U.S. should brave the risks and bring in more people.

That's nine cited sources in the article, although most (or all) are canned or borrowed from other media. But again, none are Christian leaders. One of the world's largest news organizations couldn't think of any to ask. Or didn't care.

How else could they have done the story? Ask CNN. Their report, "Don't scapegoat Syrian refugees, religious leaders say," quotes two or three top American Christians:
Two of the country's largest and most influential religious groups, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Association of Evangelicals, are urging the United States not to halt the resettlement of Syrian refugees after the deadly terrorist attack in Paris last Friday.
"Of course we want to keep terrorists out of our country, but let's not punish the victims of ISIS for the sins of ISIS," Leith Anderson, NAE president, said on Tuesday.

Later, CNN quotes Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, chairman of USCCB's committee on migration: "These refugees are fleeing terror themselves -- violence like we have witnessed in Paris. They are extremely vulnerable families, women, and children who are fleeing for their lives. We cannot and should not blame them for the actions of a terrorist organization."

The 600-word story adds that "many other American religious leaders" have also endorsed the U.S.' plans to accept more Syrians. It quotes Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the Reform Jewish-aligned Religious Action Center, and links to the Lutheran Immigration and Relief Service. It also says American Muslim leaders have spoken out on this, although it doesn't name or cite any.

And just to touch all bases, CNN ends with a typically phobic quote by Franklin Graham about allowing Muslims to "come across our borders unchecked while we are fighting this war on terror." (However, the quote is just lifted from his Facebook page, not live.)

And this article wasn't relegated to some religion news ghetto. Although it was written by religion editor Daniel Burke, it ran on the CNNPolitics.com site.

Surprise, surprise: Leading Christians -- and other religious people -- had a lot to say about taking in Syrian refugees. So CNN done good. Isn’t it better to talk to people than about them?

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