Why So Few Christians Among Syrian Refugees? State Dept.: Our Emphasis 'on Helping the Most Vulnerable'

By Patrick Goodenough | December 2, 2015 | 4:11 AM EST

Syrian children play at Jordan's Zaatari refugee camp, housing 130,000 people near the border with Syria, in April 2014. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra, File)

(CNSNews.com) – The emphasis of the United States’ refugee admission program is on helping “the most vulnerable,” and “many” of those currently being helped are members of religious minorities in Syria and Iraq, a State Department spokesperson said Tuesday.

The official was responding on background to questions about the relatively small proportion of Christians among the refugees from war-torn Syria admitted into the U.S. – 1.1 percent so far in fiscal year 2016, and 2.3 percent over the period since the conflict began in March 2011. (The CIA World Factbook says that 10 percent of the Syrian population is Christian.)

“The United States is committed to assisting people of all ethnicities, religions and nationalities who are fleeing persecution, violence, and other drivers of displacement,” the spokesperson said.

“The emphasis of our refugee admissions program is on helping the most vulnerable. Many of those we are currently assisting are Christians, Yezidis, and other religious and ethnic minorities from Iraq and Syria.”

The spokesperson pointed to data for FY2015, saying the U.S. “admitted approximately 1,700 Syrian refugees, 5 percent of whom are members of religious minorities, including Christians.”

According to the department’s Refugee Processing Center database, the exact figure for FY2015 is 1,682 admissions, of which 1,573 (93.5 percent) were Sunni Muslims.

An additional 53 (3.1 percent) were described as simply “Moslem.” (According to Minority Rights Group International, Muslims in Syria who are not Sunni or Shia are mostly Allawite – President Bashar al-Assad’s minority – although there are also small numbers of Ismailis, another Shia sect who Sunni hardliners do not regard as true Muslims.)

The remaining 56 refugees (3.3 percent) admitted in FY2015 comprise non-Muslim minorities – 30 Christians (1.8 percent), 10 Shia, six Zoroastrians, two Baha’i, two atheists, five of “other religion,” and one described as having “no religion.”

The State Department spokesperson said Christians accounted for about 10 percent of the population of Syria according to pre-war demographics. “It is unclear how many Christians have left the country; however, it is estimated that they make up a small percentage of the Syrian refugee population.”

According to the CIA World Factbook, Syria’s overall population shrank from an estimated 22.5 million in mid-2010 to an estimated 17.06 million in mid-2014. Despite that significant drop as a result of an exodus of refugees and conflict fatalities, the estimate of the Christian population remains steady at 10 percent.

Campaigners working with Syrian Christians say many of those who have left the country avoid U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) refugee camps due to safety fears, and tend to seek shelter instead with churches, Christian charities or with relatives in surrounding countries.

Christians who have fled Syria may therefore be unintentionally discriminated against by Western refugee programs – like the one in the U.S. – which rely largely on the UNHCR for initial referrals of applicants.

Asked about that concern, the State Department spokesperson said that the UNHCR identifies refugees for resettlement “based on vulnerability, which may include belonging to a religious or ethnic minority.”

The UNHCR currently has 2,181,293 registered Syrian refugees in Turkey, 1,075,637 in Lebanon, 633,644 in Jordan, 244,765 in Iraq, 127,681 in Egypt and 26,772 in North Africa – a total of 4,289,792.

The agency provides age and gender breakdowns (50.3 percent female, 49.7 percent male; about one in five are children under 12) but not religious affiliation of those in its camps.

Queries sent to the UNHCR about the religious breakdown of refugees in its camps, and about Christians’ concerns about their safety, have yet to bring a response.

But UNHCR’s director for Jordan, Andrew Harper, tweeted last week that, in the case of Jordan, more than 85 percent of refugees registered by the UNHCR are not living in camps, and that the agency sends teams to churches to facilitate registration of Christians.

Harper has also noted that 99 percent of Syrians fleeing into Jordan are Sunni Muslims. (Also see related story)

According to the UNHCR, most Christians who have fled Syria are in Lebanon, a country with a large Christian minority.

From Iraq, a much larger minority refugee contingent

The State Department spokesperson also pointed to U.S. admission figures for Iraqi refugees, where the proportion of Christians and other minorities is significantly higher than in the Syrian case.

“Of the more than 125,000 Iraqi refugees the United States has admitted since 2007, nearly 40 percent are members of religious minorities,” the official said. “The safety and rights of members of religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq are issues of long-standing concern for the department.”

According to the department’s Refugee Processing Center database, the U.S. admitted 127,131 Iraqi refugees since the beginning of 2007.

Of those, 44,459 (34.9 percent) are Sunni Muslim, 32,048 (25.2 percent) are Shia and another 1,881 (1.4 percent) are “Moslem.”

A further 47,771 (37.5 percent) are Iraqi Christians from a range of denominations, including Catholic, Orthodox and Sabean-Mandean. The remainder is made up of other non-Muslim minorities, along with atheists and people with “no religion.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow