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Worldview: Christian Arabs under siege

In this Christmas season, Christian Arabs are under threat as never before in the region where Jesus and Christianity were born.

In this Christmas season, Christian Arabs are under threat as never before in the region where Jesus and Christianity were born.

In reality, Christian communities in the Mideast have been endangered for years, but their sufferings only grabbed U.S. attention in the era of ISIS - and in an election year.

This has sparked a political debate over how to help them. Sen. Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush are proposing to admit only Christian refugees from Syria and Iraq - and exclude Muslims. Conservatives claim the administration is actively discriminating against Syrian Christians, since there are only 53 Christians among the 2,184 Syrian refugees admitted since 2011.

President Obama has called the idea of screening Syrian refugees based on religion "shameful," saying "we don't have religious tests for our compassion."

Both sides are missing the point: how best to help the endangered Christians of the Middle East.

On the conservative side, it takes chutzpah to posture about admitting Christians when House Republicans want to make it impossible for almost any Syrian refugee to enter the country. In their scare-mongering about refugees, GOP candidates have repeatedly lied about the numbers of Syrians the administration wants to take next year - only 10,000, not 100,000 (Fiorina) or 200,000 (Trump) - and ignored the rigorous two-year process of security checks already in place.

As for overt U.S. discrimination against admitting Syrian Christians, not so. Christian refugees often didn't register with the United Nations refugee agency. And many urban Christians waited until recently to apply because they saw Bashar al-Assad as their protector. Or they lingered in neighboring Lebanon, where they received some aid from Christian charities or lived off savings.

Moreover, the bulk of Syrian Christians don't live in areas taken over by ISIS. As the war drags on, however, more Christians are fleeing, many to Europe.

Which brings us to the other side of the ledger. Just because conservatives are wrong about overt religious discrimination, doesn't mean Obama is correct.

The ethnic cleansing of Mideast Christians - especially by ISIS in Iraq, but also by other Islamist jihadis elsewhere - is so intense that it demands special attention. When it comes to admitting refugees, that level of persecution cannot be ignored.

The situation is most urgent in northern Iraq, where ISIS expelled Christians and other minorities from their historic communities in Mosul and Nineveh province in 2014. Their churches have been bombed, and their priests and bishops murdered (first by Al-Qaeda in Iraq, then by ISIS). Shiite militias have continued this process in Baghdad.

"Iraqi Christians are a targeted community at risk," says Daniel Williams, a former senior researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the forthcoming book, Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today's Middle East. "They have endured 12 years of persecution because they are Christians."

Around 120,000 Iraqi Christians have taken refuge in Iraq's Kurdistan region, along with tens of thousands of other persecuted religious minorities such as Yazidis. As oil prices fall, the Kurdish regional government is overburdened.

"Christians are being persecuted in the Middle East under the reign of a particular ISIS ideology," says Williams, an ideology also adhered to by other adherents to the hard-line salafist trend in Islam. "According to this thinking, Christians do not belong in the Middle East and they are seen to weaken Islam," he adds, although this repudiates core tenets of mainstream Muslims.

Even if ISIS is eventually defeated, most of these Iraqi Christians cannot return home. As I heard when speaking with Christian refugees in Kurdistan, they fear their former Sunni neighbors, many of whom betrayed them to ISIS. While some Iraqi clerics call for a "protected zone" for Christians in northern Iraq, I doubt that this is feasible.

So how should America help?

Williams believes that offering asylum to certain Christian communities in the most danger - around 30,000 who are now refugees in Kurdistan - makes sense. The same offer could be made, he says, to tens of thousands from the equally threatened Yazidis, now living in camps in Kurdistan, thousands of whose men were killed and women made into sex slaves by ISIS.

Rather than argue whether Yazidis or Christians are more deserving of a formal designation as victims of genocide - a debate now going on between the State Department and some Christian advocates - it makes more sense to push for a bipartisan consensus on granting many of them asylum. (For Christians who prefer to remain in Kurdistan, Obama should press Gulf Arabs to provide more financial help.)

Admitting these refugees, however, should not be a substitute for letting in 10,000 or more vetted Syrian Muslim refugees next year, as pledged by Obama. Refusing to do so plays into the ISIS narrative that America hates all Muslims. Moreover, most of those refugees would be women and children who are also victims of ISIS.

This country is big enough, and should be generous enough, to welcome many of those that ISIS would destroy - whether Christians, Yazidis, or Muslims. Recognizing the special peril in which Iraqi Christians live shouldn't mean that America rejects Muslims who want to build new lives.