By AP, News24. Photo: Sanit Palacios
Washington - Leaders of major US religious groups have condemned proposed bans on Syrian refugees, contending a legitimate debate over security has been overtaken by irrational fear and prejudice.
Top organisations 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 his state has welcomed a large number of Cuban refugees over the years. "This is falling into the trap of what the terrorists wanted us to become. We shouldn't allow them to change who we are as a people."
About 70% of all refugees admitted to the US are resettled by faith groups, according to the US State Department office for refugees.
Rev Russell Moore, head of the public policy agency for the conservative Southern Baptist Convention, the country's largest Protestant group, said screening is crucial and "we should insist on it," but he said evangelicals should not "demagogue the issue as many politicians are doing right now."
Lawmakers and more than half of US governors, mostly Republicans, have said they were worried Islamic extremists may try to take advantage of the US refugee process. Some governors are refusing Syrian refugee settlement in their states for now. They point to a passport found near the body of one of the Paris suicide bombers that had been registered along the route asylum seekers are taking through Europe. It's not clear how the passport ended up near the attacker.
On Thursday, the US 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" and "a huge disservice."
Reform Judaism, the largest American Jewish movement, joined the American Jewish Committee, an influential policy group, the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish civil rights organization, and the Orthodox Union, in opposing any halt in resettlement.
Refugees already go through a comprehensive vetting process that can take as much as three years, including biometric screening, fingerprinting and additional classified controls. Some lawmakers are now demanding even tougher assessments.
Rev Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, said in a Facebook post that new immigration policies are needed because, "We cannot allow Muslim immigrants to come across our borders unchecked while we are fighting this war on terror."
Still, many faith leaders who share those security concerns are condemning the tone of the current 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. But the group said, "Neither partisan politics nor xenophobia can have a place in that debate."