Since the civil war began in Syria in 2011, almost a quarter of a million people have been killed. Of the survivors, an estimated 12.2 million are in need of humanitarian assistance. This fact, combined with the deliberate campaigns of terror waged by the Islamic State, has triggered the massive outpouring of refugees from Syria.
Such macro figures do not discriminate between Syria’s diverse population. A closer look at the country’s demography unpacks the religious diversity: 87% of Syrians are Muslim (also diverse), 10% are Christian and the remainder represent small minority groups, such as Druze and Yazidis.
With hundreds of thousands of Syrians in refugee camps outside the country at this present moment, one would expect the camps to reflect the demography of Syria. This is not the case, as it is widely reported that religious minorities have been wary to enter the camps for fear of being persecuted by some of the Muslim refugees.
Preferring religious minorities
In this context, the Australian government announced in September that it would accept 12,000 refugees, but that it would “discriminate” in favour of religious minorities. At the time of the announcement, Australian government spokespeople were quick to stress that religious affiliation was not the deciding factor, but rather the identification of religious minorities as the primary target group reflected a decision to assist those who had suffered the most, persecuted both by Islamist terror groups as well as by some other groups in the broader Muslim community.
The Australian government decision has triggered a bitter debate. Predictably Muslim responses have been very critical. Islamic Community leader Ahmed Kilani said in interview: “This kind of bigoted fear mongering from the … government is a new tragic low. It’s a betrayal of the true Australian spirit”. Mr Kilani continued with a warning: “The government keeps saying it is worried about people being radicalised. What do you think young Muslims are going to think when they see who can come in and who can’t?”
Australian Broadcasting Commission journalist Sarah Malik chose to interpret the government’s stated focus on religious minorities more narrowly, in writing: “It doesn’t take much to read between the lines of random visa checks and the prioritisation of Christians. People like us only, please.”
Refugee Council CEO Paul Power cast an original spin on the government’s attempts to ease the pressure on religious minorities by suggesting that the opposite would result: “I’m sure one of the consequences is that extremists within Syria and other parts of the Middle East will use this as a weapon against Syrian Christians.”
Support for the government
Nevertheless, there have been comments in support of the government’s decision. Speaking for a community that has suffered greatly under Islamic State terror, Nora Michael, Assyrian Aid society spokesperson, said: “Anything that is going to help keep them alive is a good thing. I don’t think you would meet any Syrian Christians in Australia who would say anything other than help them first, they are the target.”
Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, interpreted the beneficiary groups more broadly than Sarah Malik, in speaking in support of the government decision: ‘Groups like the Yazidis, Christians and Zoroastrians are at peril of extinction in the Middle East at the hands of Daesh.’
Christians thrown into the sea
The debate in Australia echoes similar debates taking place in other Western countries. In comments which resemble those of Australian Islamic Community leader Ahmed Kilani, American President Obama recently suggested it was “shameful” and “un-American” to favour Christian refugees over others. His critics ask if Christians comprise 10% of the Syrian population, and they have been among the most persecuted, why they only constitute 2% of refugees admitted to America so far?
The debate in Australia continues, with occasional spikes when new details are released, such as the recent account of Muslims on a refugee boat throwing 12 Christians overboard to drown in the Mediterranean last April. This report had other Christian passengers stating that they were only spared by their Muslim refugee antagonists because they formed a human chain.
In spite of the critical voices, it would appear that public sentiment sits firmly behind the Australian government decision. The challenge in implementation lies in the fact that the Australian government must select its refugees from official refugee camps, where it appears that Christian refugees are wary to go for fear of further persecution from some Muslim refugee groups.
First published on Evangelical Now.
Professor Peter G Riddell serves as Professorial Research Associate in the Department of History at SOAS, University of London and as Vice Principal (Academic) at the Melbourne School of Theology (an affiliated college of the Australian College of Theology). He previously taught at the Australian National University, the Institut Pertanian Bogor (Indonesia), and the London School of Theology. He has published widely on the study of Southeast Asia, Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations.