In rare agreement across faith and ideological lines, leaders of major American religious groups have condemned proposed bans on Syrian refugees, contending a legitimate debate over security has been overtaken by irrational fear and prejudice.
Top organizations representing evangelicals, Roman Catholics, Jews, and liberal Protestants say close vetting of asylum seekers is a critical part of forming policy on refugees. But these religious leaders say such concerns, heightened after the Paris attacks a week ago, do not warrant blocking those fleeing violence in the Middle East.
"The problem is not the Syrian refugees," said Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, who noted how Florida has welcomed many Cuban refugees over the years. "This is falling into the trap of what the terrorists wanted us to become."
About 70 percent of refugees admitted to the U.S. are resettled by faith groups, according to the State Department office for refugees. The bulk of the work is done by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services. World Relief, an arm of the National Association of Evangelicals, and Church World Service, representing Protestant and Orthodox groups, are each responsible for about 10 percent. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and Episcopal Migrant Ministries handle several thousand cases.
The Rev. Russell Moore, head of the public policy agency for the conservative Southern Baptist Convention, the country's largest Protestant group, said evangelicals should not "demagogue the issue as many politicians are doing."
Lawmakers and more than half of U.S. governors have said they were worried Islamic extremists may try to take advantage of the U.S. refugee process. Some governors are refusing Syrian refugee settlement in their states.
On Thursday, the House voted by a veto-proof majority to pass legislation which in effect would suspend admissions of Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Stephan Bauman, president of World Relief, called the bill "without rational basis."
Reform Judaism, the largest American Jewish movement, joined the American Jewish Committee, an influential policy group, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Orthodox Union, in opposing any halt in resettlement.
Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, said, "we will not let the nightmare" of terrorism "keep us from carrying out the words of Jesus.
Some of the faithful are more openly struggling to find the balance between national security and compassion. The Rev. Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, said new immigration policies are needed because "Islam is not a peaceful religion" and "our nation's security is at stake."
Still, many faith leaders who share those security concerns are condemning the tone of the discussion.
The Orthodox Union said "we encourage a sensible process of reviewing and enhancing security," with the goal of "getting to yes" on admitting asylum seekers.