Christian leaders have spoken out in response to President Donald Trump’s expanded travel ban that went into effect last Friday, expressing concern over its impact on countries where religious persecution is severe.
Shortly after taking office in 2017, Trump came under intense scrutiny when he signed an executive order restricting immigration from six Muslim-majority countries that fail to meet “minimum security and information-sharing requirements.”
But an amended order signed by Trump on Jan. 31 adds four African countries as well as Kyrgyzstan and Myanmar to a travel restriction list that already includes Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, Venezuela and North Korea.
Under the amended policy, immigrant visas are suspended for Nigeria, Myanmar, Eritrea and Kyrgyzstan. Those from Sudan and Tanzania will not be considered for the U.S. diversity visa program. The new restrictions will not apply to tourists, businesses or other nonimmigrant travel.
According to the Department of Homeland Security, the new restrictions are tailored to “country-specific deficiencies” and travel-related risks due to the “countries’ unwillingness or inability to adhere to our identity management, information sharing, national security, and public safety assessment criteria.”
As the Trump administration has been accused of anti-Muslim animus in the past, the DHS asserts that the “restrictions do not reflect animus or bias against any particular country, region, ethnicity, race, or religion.”
While those on the political left have long been vocal in their opposition to the travel restrictions, the expansion of the policy drew responses from some Christian leaders who have been supportive of the Trump administration’s push to promote international religious freedom.
This includes David Curry, president of Open Doors USA, a global persecution watchdog organization active in over 60 countries. Six of the 13 countries included on the travel ban list are listed on Open Doors USA’s 2020 World Watch List of the 50 worst countries in the world when it comes to Christian persecution. Eritrea is ranked No. 6, while Nigeria is ranked No. 12 and Myanmar is ranked No. 19.
“Though I recognize there is an important discussion on how to best deal with terrorists who are present dangers to free societies, we must never restrict based on religious identification,” Curry said in a statement shared with The Christian Post. “It’s up to us to exemplify religious tolerance and freedom on a daily basis. To the degree we have failed in the past, let’s never fail to fix the wrong and to keep raising the level of freedom.”
Travis Wussow, vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, told The Alabama Baptist that SBC churches are among the “most committed people in the country” when it comes to “ministering to those fleeing persecution.”
Wussow asserted that while international religious freedom has been a priority to the Trump administration, any policy that “closes the door to refugees” undercuts such a priority. He stressed that the U.S. should find a way to balance “security and compassion.”
“[Our churches] recognize that all of those escaping tyranny are made in the image of God, and many of them are our brothers and sisters in Christ,” Wussow said in a statement. “That’s why, from the beginning, the ERLC has asked our government to do everything possible to provide security without turning away from those in danger and need.”
World Relief, an evangelical refugee resettlement agency and humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals that has helped resettle thousands of refugees since the 1980s, has long opposed the travel ban.
World Relief President Scott Arbeiter argued in a statement that the new restrictions “will mean families seeking reunification will be stymied.”
“This overly broad policy unfairly targets individuals of particular nationalities in Africa and Asia, and sadly it’s consistent with various other policies that have the effect of significantly restricting legal immigration to the United States,” Arbeiter stated.
Although the extended travel ban does not apply to the U.S. refugee resettlement program, World Relief fears how the ban will impact Myanmar. Myanmar, also known as Burma, has been the top country of origin for refugees resettled to the U.S. in the past decade with over 150,000 resettled in the last 12 years.
Many of those 150,000, World Relief notes, are persecuted Christians.
Prior to the official signing of the travel ban extension, Michael K. Le Roy, president of the reformed Christian institution Calvin University in Michigan, voiced concern with reports of Nigeria’s inclusion in the travel ban with U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback.
Le Roy raised the issue during a question and answer session at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities Presidents Conference in Washington. He said that Calvin University’s mission is to equip students “to think deeply, to act justly and to live wholeheartedly as Christ’s agents of renewal in the world.”
“I am really concerned about these reports that I have heard that Nigeria may be [put] on the banned country list,” he said, adding that the university has students that come from Nigeria. “We have a long history of working with [Nigerian Christian students] to the extent that a ban would limit those students’ opportunities to be a part of our community.”
He argued that a ban on Nigeria and other countries would “rob” Christian students from those places of the opportunities.
Brownback responded by saying at the time that he didn’t know anything about plans to put Nigeria on the travel ban list but noted that the U.S. State Department recently put Nigeria on its special watch list of countries that engage in or tolerate severe violations of religious freedom “because of the amount of violence that is going on there and the lack of effective government response.”
“It seems to me that we really ought to be bringing people into the United States and not excluding them from being in the United States,” Brownback said on Jan. 29. “Particularly, when people get an education in the United States, they tend to go back and be key leaders in those nations. That has been one of the great gifts that we have given to the world and the world has given back to us.”