By Alin K. Gregorian
BOSTON — While the fates of many US-bound refugees from war-torn and desperate nations around the world are still up in the air, many American — including Armenian-American — religious officials have expressed their stern opposition to recent anti-immigrant decrees issued by President Donald Trump.
On January 27, Trump issued an executive order suspending the entry of all refugees to the US for 120 days, as well as halting admission of refugees from Syria indefinitely and barring entry for three months to residents from the predominantly Muslim countries of Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen.
Anthony Barsamian, the co-chair of the Armenian Assembly of America, in a carefully crafted statement said, “Our leadership has scheduled a meeting with the administration and State Department officials this week to express our concerns for Armenians who have valid visas and are awaiting entry to the United States. We will specifically advocate for Armenian and other refugees from Syria and Iraq who are in imminent danger and need to expeditiously depart conflict zones.”
However, in his role as president of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, he signed on to a joint letter sent by the Massachusetts Heads of Church on the Executive Action Suspending Refugee Resettlement.
The statement reads, in part, “We believe in the aspirations of our nation, a place where all people long to live in safety. We remember with horror our nation’s decision in 1939 to refuse the refugees on the MS St. Louis, a ship of German Jews, condemning many to death. Refugees invite our increased compassion, not our hardened hearts.”
The letter also quotes Bishop Joe Vasquez of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops: “We believe in assisting all those who are vulnerable and fleeing persecution, regardless of their religion. This includes Christians, as well as Yezidis and Shia Muslims from Syria, Rohingyas from Burma, and other religious minorities. However, we need to protect all our brothers and sisters of all faiths, including Muslims, who have lost family, home, and country.”
In addition, the letter adds, “We grieve this decision to limit refugees, as it will cause further suffering, not just to our fellow Christians escaping persecution, but all refugees fleeing violence. As Christians we try to live our lives in accordance with Jesus’ Great Commandment — to love our neighbors as ourselves. We want safe homes, the freedom to worship, stable governments, and opportunities to thrive. Refugees desire the same. Our nation is founded on this welcome. We must make sure that we do not allow fear to overwhelm us, crowd out our compassion, or fundamentally change our character.
Therefore, we pledge our voices and our churches’ active support to resettle refugees in Massachusetts.
“We call on elected leaders, including President Trump, to reconsider the Executive Action to limit refugee resettlement.
“We have and will continue to welcome and support refugees. Our churches are in every single city and town of Massachusetts.
“And, we ask our churches to reach out in love and Christian hospitality to the refugees living near them. We encourage our churches to show compassion and support to those who have fled hardship and violence.”
Among the signatories of the letter are Rev. Fr. Arakel Aljalian, Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America, Barsamian, well as several New England Episcopal, Baptist and Catholic leaders.
One other leader who has spoken out against the executive order is Archbishop Vicken Aykazian, the Diocesan Legate in Washington, who is also a member of the executive council of the World Council of Churches. He spoke this week not only about his opposition to the refugee ban, but to the executive order temporarily barring residents from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the US.
“I am an immigrant. My parents were immigrants. My people are immigrants. My people have been immigrants for more than 100 years,” he said no Monday. “It is morally unacceptable for me to speak against any immigration ban.”
He said thus country should “welcome them.”
Aykazian explained that his parents were refugees that were welcomed in Europe after leaving Turkey.
He stressed, however, that he supports all US “anti-terror measures wholeheartedly” to ensure domestic safety measures.
“I think I am going to support the overwhelming majority of church leaders,” who oppose harsher measures, he said. There is a “moral responsibility” to helping those in need.
“The World Council of Churches supports every kind of immigration all around the world,” he said. “These are difficult times.”
In fact, the WCC, along with the ACT Alliance (ACT), and The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) issued a statement saying: “These measures have been introduced in the name of protecting the nation from terrorists entering the US. However, we support the view that in practice this order serves to further harm those who are the very victims of terrorism, genocide, religious and gender-based persecution, and civil war.”
Participants in a WCC delegation to Iraq on 20-25 January met many victims of terrorism in Iraq, including Christians, Yezidis, Muslims and members of many other religious communities, all of whom must now feel doubly victimized by these measures, continues the statement. (See Story on Page 1.)
“We affirm and insist that, as prescribed under international humanitarian and human rights law, all those in confirmed need of refuge and international protection have a right to receive it, regardless of their religious or ethnic identity.”
To give preference to Christians in this context does not necessarily protect the Christian community in Iraq, but may risk further jeopardizing the inter-communal reconciliation on which their future in their ancient homeland depends, continues the statement. “As one of the most significant destination countries for refugee resettlement worldwide, we urge the United States to uphold its long tradition of welcoming refugees and offering them international protection, in accordance with its commitments and obligations under international law.”
Church leaders, Aykazian said, continue to send letters to the administration stating their opposition.
“We have to be anti-terrorism and we have to support our administration,” he said.
Among those refugees are Armenians from Iraq and Syria. In Syria, he said, there are about 5,000 Armenians left in Aleppo, when the population had peaked at about 200,000, before the start of the civil war there. Now, he said, in both places, the churches have been destroyed and the schools bombed.
Many Armenians had gone to these two countries after the Armenian Genocide and built successful communities. Now, 100 years after the Genocide, “the overwhelming majority has been destroyed,” Aykazian said.
Courts in Seattle, Boston and Brooklyn have temporarily halted the bans. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals was scheduled to hear arguments from the government as well as opponents on the afternoon of Tuesday, February 7, after press time.