State Dept Official: We Don’t Prioritize Christian Syrian Refugees over Other Religions

By Melanie Arter | December 18, 2015 | 11:21am EST
Syrian refugees arrived on the island of Lesbos, Greece. (Petros Giannakouris/Associated Press)

( – A State Department official told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Thursday that the U.S. does not prioritize Christian Syrian refugees just because of their religion.

“We’re not going to change the program, somehow bring more of one particular religion than another,” Anne Richard, assistant secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration, told the committee.

During the hearing on foreign travelers and national security, Richard said the U.S. is bringing Christians in from Syria, but she said “they are underrepresented in part because they make up a small part of the refugees from Syria.”

“And that’s the problem,” said chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who noted that only 29 Christian Syrian refugees have been admitted to the U.S. during the year.

Richard said that most Christian Syrian refugees are not fleeing, because they feel safe.

Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.) asked, “You said they’re not fleeing, because they feel safe. Ms. Richard, how many Christians have we brought in, in the last five years?

“Four percent of all the Syrians we have brought have been Christian or other minorities,” said Richard.

“You’ve brought in 53. You tell me that’s four percent? Because according to the numbers that aren’t hard to find – you can look this up on CNN, Wikipedia, or any place else – there are 2 million Christians decimated, okay? Two million Christians. According to Pope Francis, he calls it genocide,” said Walker.

As previously reported, the U.S. has only admitted 53 Christians (2.4 percent) out of the 2,184 Syrian refugees it has admitted since the civil war in Syria began in 2011. There were 2,098 Muslim refugees admitted during that time period.

“Just last month, an Assyrian bishop was pleading for ransom money, 200 hostages held--some young ladies. Do you know what ISIS does to the young females? It’s brutal. I’m sure you’re aware of that working for the State Department. So please tell me why that we have brought in 53 Christians. How do you know they’re Christians? What’s the process?” asked Walker.

“We had just checked the number. It’s four percent of the 2,400 total Syrians brought in since 2011 have been Christians or other minorities. They are brought in because they feel that they are in danger because of that. We agree with you 100 percent that these people should be given a chance for resettlement if they present a case,” said Richard.

“But you said today that Christians are not fleeing Syria, because they feel safer. Would you like to retract that?” asked Walker.

Richard said some of the Christians are not fleeing Syria because they support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and feel safer with him there, “but of the ones who come out, who choose to flee and feel they are in danger, those are the people we want to help, absolutely.”

Later in the hearing, Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-Va.) asked, “Let me ask about the line of questioning that somehow implies we ought to prioritize a particular religious group over all others. Mr. Burson, Mr. Rodriguez, Ms. Bond, would that be constitutional?”

“Well, related to refugees, Mr. Connolly, one of the five ways that someone can be determined to be a refugee is if they’ve been persecuted on the basis of their religion, and from the perspective of my office, it doesn’t matter what their religion is. It’s the reason that they’re being persecuted, and they could qualify to be determined to be a refugee, and so we see people fleeing from around the world,” said Richard.

“That’s not my question, and I don’t think that was the question being asked. Are we constitutionally permitted – could you and your office put a little asterisk, we give a little extra weight if you’re of a particular religion? Is that constitutional? Do you have the authority to do that?” asked Connolly.

Richard said the State Department would not change the refugee program to “bring more of one particular religion than another.”

“You’re going to look at the nature of the refugee status,” said Connolly.

“Right,” said Richard.

“Irrespective of religion,” said Connolly.

“That’s right,” said Richard.

“Is that how it should work in your opinion?” Connolly asked.

“Yes, I’m absolutely very comfortable with that,” said Richard.

“Because actually that’s what refugee programs are designed to do, isn’t it? We’re trying to help people who are suffering violence, oppression, discrimination” and provide a safe haven,” said Connolly. 

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