In President Trump’s telling, the Middle East is a place where Christians run a daily gantlet of persecution, threatened at every corner by religious zealots eager to chop off their heads.
The U.S. government under previous administrations, he alleged, showed little pity.
“If you were a Muslim, you could come” to the U.S., he said in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network on Friday, “but if you were a Christian, it was almost impossible.”
In an executive order he signed Friday, he suspended refugee resettlement from seven Muslim-majority countries for 120 days. (Late Saturday night, a federal judge in New York issued an order halting the removal of refugees or others who hold valid visas to enter the U.S. The order appears to affect up to 200 people who were detained in transit to the United States.)
The order notes, however, that the secretaries of State and Homeland Security may jointly decide to admit some refugees “including when the person is a religious minority in his country of nationality facing religious persecution.”
But in proposing what commentators have called a “religious test,” Trump has not yet answered one crucial question: Just how does one differentiate between Muslims and Christians?
As is always the case in the Middle East, the answer is complicated and can defy stereotypes. Also complicated is the status of Christians in the region, and how they have been treated historically and now.
All the countries falling under Trump’s ban — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — have small but significant Christian minorities. Though some communities arose in separate enclaves, often Christians are integrated within larger urban centers.
Often they are physically indistinguishable from their non-Christian compatriots. Names are of little help; only some, like Mohammad, Ahmad and Mustafa (all names of the prophet Muhammad) clearly mark a person as a Muslim. Others give no clue.
And while they have been specifically targeted in a number of regions where they dominate, such as areas of Iraq and Syria, Christians often suffer the same fate as their Muslim neighbors who are the primary victims of the extremist groups rampaging in Syria, Iraq and Libya.
Trump’s claims about the U.S. accepting refugees from the Middle East are not borne out by the numbers. According to the Pew Research Center, the United States had accepted an almost equal number of Christian and Muslim refugees in the 2016 fiscal year; 37,521 Christians and 38,901 Muslims.
In Syria and Iraq, Christians have joined the tsunami of refugees fleeing an internecine political and sectarian war that has ravaged wide swaths of the two countries. Areas with religious minorities that have fallen to Islamic State speak of horrors perpetrated by the extremists. Just last month Islamic State claimed responsibility for a bombing at St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo.
Trump alluded to Middle East violence in his Christian Broadcasting Network interview, noting atrocities committed by Islamic State in Syria, where extremists “were chopping off the heads of everybody, but more so the Christians.”
In recent years, Christians’ homes and businesses have been confiscated by the jihadists, who daubed the letter N in Arabic (for “Nasrani,” a term meaning “Christian,” which some consider a pejorative) under a sign reading “Property of Islamic State.”
Some Christians were kidnapped by jihadists, who often used them as bargaining chips or as hostages to be used for ransom.
“I know in general the [Nusra Front] believes the pope will buy Christian hostages out of captivity. They are quite certain about this,” said Theo Padnos, an American journalist captured by Nusra in 2012 and imprisoned for two years.
In 2014, the BBC reported claims by Syrian rebels that the Gulf nation of Qatar, a major Syrian opposition supporter, had offered to pay $4 million for the release of 13 nuns kidnapped by the Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front (now known as the Front for the Conquest of Syria). They were later released in a secret agreement.
Technically, under Islam, Christians are dhimmis, “a protected person,” who must pay a jizyah, or tax, and smother all signs of their religion or convert. Other non-Muslims don’t have that choice of practicing their faith quietly.
Padnos said it’s common to not treat Christians as a protected class at all. “They always say Christians are dhimmis…. This is the official line,” he continued in a Facebook chat on Saturday.
“Yet they whacked me over the head with their sandals for not praying with the Muslims in my cell. I guess that was the unofficial policy,” he said.
Before the Syrian government took back all of the northern city of Aleppo in December, Christians in the government-held part of the once-divided city lived in daily fear of the mortars and rockets launched by rebel factions (including some that had received Western support).
But before the chaos following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the turmoil of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011, Christians had maintained generally amicable relations with other communities.
Though intermarriage was taboo, in several countries religious festivals were often celebrated together or declared national holidays for all.
There was also persecution — and not just against Christians.
In Iran, the largest non-Muslim religious minority is the Bahais, numbering about 300,000 out of a population of 80 million. Their faith is not officially recognized by the state. Iran’s rulers regard the Bahai as apostates and have banned members of the faith from holding public gatherings or worshiping in their homes.
The suspicion apparently stems from a belief among Iranian hard-liners that the Bahai are linked to Zionism because the faith’s headquarters is in Haifa, Israel. In 2010, seven Bahai leaders in Iran were sentenced to 20-year prison terms on charges of spying for Israel, which international human rights groups described as baseless.
Those who practice the faith openly are barred from universities and government jobs, and a former United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of religion said that even in kindergarten, Bahai children were targeted for “special surveillance.”
Bulos is a special correspondent.