Immigration EO, round 2: Maybe Christians merely 'claim' to be persecuted by Islamic State?

Does anyone out there in news-consumer land remember the 21 Coptic Christian martyrs of Libya who were slaughtered on a beach in that Islamic State video? As Pope Francis noted, many of them died with these words on their lips: "Jesus help me."

Remember the reports of Christians -- along with Yazidis and other religious minorities -- being raped, gunned down, hauled off into sexual servitude or in some cases crucified?

Surely you do. These hellish events did receive some coverage from major American newsrooms.

The persecution of religious minorities -- Christians, Yazidis, Alawites, Baha'is, Jews, Druze and Shia Muslims -- played a role, of course, in the #MuslimBan media blitz that followed the rushed release of President Donald Trump's first executive order creating a temporary ban on most refugees from lands racked by conflicts with radicalized forms of Islam.

So now journalists are dissecting the administration's second executive order on this topic, which tried to clean up some of the wreckage from that first train wreck. How did elite journalists deal with the religious persecution angle this time around?

Trigger warning: Readers who care about issues of religious persecution should sit down and take several deep breaths before reading this USA Today passage on changes in the second EO:

Nationals of the six countries with legal permanent residence in the U.S. (known as green card holders) are not affected. People with valid visas as of Monday also are exempt. And the order no longer gives immigration preference to "religious minorities," such as Christians who claim they are persecuted in mostly Muslim countries.

The key word there, of course, is "claim."

You see, we don't actually have any evidence -- in videos, photos or reports from religious organizations and human-rights groups -- that Christians and believers in other religious minorities are actually being persecuted. Christians simply "claim" that this is the case.

Thank you, editors at USA Today for your candor on that topic. However, I could have sworn that, during the Barack Obama administration, Secretary of State John Kerry used the strongest possible language when addressing this persecution issue. He told reporters:

... that "Daesh" -- the Arabic term for the Islamic State -- is "responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yazidis, Christians and Shi'ite Muslims. … Daesh is genocidal by self-proclamation, by ideology and by actions, in what it says, in what it believes and what it does."

Yes, that USA Today story was a rather extreme case of loaded language from early coverage of the revised executive order.

For the most part, the religious persecution angle was pushed deep into the news reports. In several cases, journalists avoided any references to what the earlier EO text said on this issue, allowing the voices of Trump and his critics to stand unchallenged. Hold that thought.

It is worth noting that The New York Times thought this angle was important enough to put it in the lede:

WASHINGTON -- President Trump on Monday signed a revised version of his executive order that would for the first time rewrite American immigration policy to bar migrants from predominantly Muslim nations, removing citizens of Iraq from the original travel embargo and scrapping a provision that explicitly protected religious minorities.

Later on, the Times team added this:

... Opponents said that the removal of a section that had granted preferential treatment to victims of religious persecution -- a provision that immigrant rights attorneys argued was intended to discriminate against Muslims -- was a cosmetic change that did nothing to alter the order’s prejudicial purpose.
“This is a retreat, but let’s be clear -- it’s just another run at a Muslim ban,” said Omar Jadwat, director of the Immigrants’ Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the groups that sued to stop the first order.

That's interesting. I could have sworn that the original language also protected some Muslims, and members of sects linked to Islam, who have faced persecution from the Islamic State. What did that order actually say?

... The "Secretary of State, in consultation with the Secretary of Homeland Security, is further directed to make changes, to the extent permitted by law, to prioritize refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual's country of nationality."

You may recall that the Times, during that earlier media storm, summarized that part of the order by saying it "gives preferential treatment to Christians who try to enter the United States from majority-Muslim nations." In a way, the Gray Lady was more restrained this time around, leaving persecuted Christians out of this debate.

How did the Associated Press handle this angle in the new EO? This is crucial, since this is the story that will appear in most ordinary daily newspapers across America. Here is the crucial reference:

The new version also removes language that would give priority to religious minorities. Critics had accused the administration of adding such language to help Christians get into the U.S. while excluding Muslims.

Yes, it is certainly true that critics interpreted the original executive order in that manner, helped along by the usual opinions and slanted information found in Trump tweets and his statements to Christian media. But what did the actual EO text say?

My journalism question: Is it normal for journalists to allow "critics" of a policy to be the only voices addressing the basic facts in this kind of debate? Again, what did the actual EO say? Were there people -- including EO opponents -- who noted that believers in other persecuted religious minorities would have been affected?

Apparently, this "critics" only approach to the core facts also appealed to editors at The Washington Post:

The new order ... removes an exception to the refu­gee ban for members of religious minority groups -- which critics had pointed to as evidence the first ban was meant to discriminate against Muslims -- and it no longer imposes an indefinite prohibition on travelers from Syria.

I will end with this appeal by one activist -- yes, a Christian -- on these issues. This topic might be worth some follow-up reporting, to see if anyone in the White House still cares about this issue.

Nina Shea at the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom noted:

There’s a dire need for Pres. Trump to issue a separate executive order -- one specifically aimed to help ISIS genocide survivors in Iraq and Syria. For three years, the Christians, Yizidis and others of the smallest religious minorities have been targeted by ISIS with beheadings, crucifixions, rape, torture and sexual enslavement. One year ago, on March 17, 2016, ISIS was officially designated as responsible for this “genocide” by the State Department. Nevertheless, the UN marginalizes these minorities, not only from Syrian refugee resettlement referrals,  but from other UN programs substantially funded by the U.S.: Iraqi humanitarian aid programs, Nineveh reconstruction assistance plans and its refugee camps, which, region-wide, have been allowed to become dens of religious persecution in which few minority refugees dare enter.  Even if ISIS is routed from Mosul, the Christian community is now so shattered and vulnerable, without Pres. Trump’s prompt leadership, the entire Iraqi Christian presence could soon be wiped out.

Stay tuned.

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