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USCIRF calls for government to resettle 100,000 Syrian refugees
The U.S. government should do more to help families facing persecution and the threat of genocide in countries like Syria and Iraq, according to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom's 2016 Annual Report. - photo by Kelsey Dallas
The U.S. government should do more to help families facing persecution and the threat of genocide in countries like Syria and Iraq, according to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom's 2016 Annual Report.

"We have made this recommendation before, and we're making it again. It's only become increasingly urgent to bring comfort and security to people who are fleeing in the Middle East and Europe," said Robert P. George, USCIRF's chairman, in a Monday press conference.

The report calls the ongoing refugee crisis one of the key religious freedom challenges facing communities around the world. It also outlines problematic practices affecting people of faith and highlights countries where the worst religious liberty violations occur.

Growing numbers of people are speaking out against groups and governments that keep people from living out their beliefs, George said. But words aren't enough, and, in its 2016 Annual Report, USCIRF urges the U.S. government to take action.

"Americans have to recognize that other people's liberty is just as important as our own," he said.

Addressing the crisis

USCIRF urges government leaders to accept more refugees because religious freedom violations are forcing people to flee their homes, George said. He offered the Rohingya Muslims in Burma and Christians, Yazidis and Shia Muslims in Syria and Iraq as examples of minority faith groups under attack.

"We've also noted that it's important to prioritize people who we accept for refugee states on the basis of vulnerability," he said, noting that welcoming individuals and families vulnerable to genocide, rape and torture should be the highest priority.

Almost 70,000 refugees were admitted into the U.S. in fiscal year 2015, including nearly 25,000 from the Middle East and South Asia, according to refugee admissions data from the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.

President Obama said last year that he hopes to bring 10,000 Syrians to the U.S., but the plan sparked an outcry from Republican lawmakers and others who fear that a large influx of refugees could put American security at risk.

George said he understands the anxiety, but argues that allotting more resources toward a strong vetting process could address these concerns.

USCIRF's 2016 Annual Report encourages the U.S. government to commit to resettling 100,000 Syrian refugees, in order to "demonstrate U.S. leadership in efforts to address this extraordinary humanitarian crisis and show support for governments in the Middle East and Europe that are hosting millions of Syrian refugees."

It's a lofty goal, considering some of the negative rhetoric aimed at refugees, but George said he's optimistic that the executive branch and Congress will step up to meet this challenge.

"We are hopeful, but we realize that to get to where we need to be very legitimate concerns about security need to be met," he said.

Pope Francis and other faith leaders have confronted security concerns in their efforts to get people of faith involved in serving refugees. The pope counters fear by presenting the refugee crisis in terms of how it affects families, arguing that it's morally necessary for believers to take action.

"Forced migration of families, resulting from situations of war, persecution, poverty and injustice traumatizes people and destabilizes families," he wrote in "Amoris Laetitia," his recent letter on family life.

George mentioned families as well, noting that many Americans would be willing to welcome those whose lives and family's lives are in jeopardy.

"The American people (are) a compassionate people," he said. "When people are reassured that security concerns are being met, they will be open to receiving people who are fleeing."

Religious freedom in decline

In addition to the refugee crisis, George described increasing anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish sentiment in Europe and growing numbers of prisoners of conscience around the world as major challenges facing religious freedom.

Overall, the report paints a bleak picture of how religious liberty fared in the last 12 months, he noted.

"At best, religious freedom conditions have failed to improve. At worst, they've spiraled downward," George said.

USCIRF designated 17 nations as "Countries of Particular Concern" in 2016, including Burma, China, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq and Nigeria. The report outlines ongoing problems such as the failure to protect religious minorities or the creation of blasphemy laws that allow the government to imprison or even execute people who are viewed as enemies of the majority faith.

USCIRF, which is independent and bipartisan government commission, sends its report to the State Department, which has its own list of CPCs. The State Department had previously recognized only nine of USCIRF's 17 CPCs, but added Tajikistan to its list in April.

"We welcome this decision as a constructive one (and) call on the State Department to follow our other recommendations," George said.

The main takeaway of the report is that religious freedom law continues to have serious humanitarian, economic, social and security implications, and thus needs to "have a seat at the table" in global politics, he added.

"There's only so much that the United States can do here, but what it can do, it should do," he said.
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