Following President Trump’s executive order temporarily limiting travel from seven Muslim-majority nations, Southern Baptists reasserted their commitment to seek a balance between compassion and national security in immigration policy.
CNN screen capture
Among Southern Baptist leaders to respond to Trump’s order and ensuing protests across America were Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission President Russell Moore, Executive Committee President Frank S. Page and former Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) President Bryant Wright.
Also weighing in on the controversy were pastor Robert Jeffress of Dallas, a vocal Trump supporter, and Mokhles Hanna, pastor of an Atlanta-area Arab congregation whose 20-25 Iraqi and Syrian members are “so concerned” about the order’s potential effects.
Trump’s Jan. 27 executive order called for a review of the U.S.’s process for admitting foreigners and suspended travel from seven specific nations for 90 days “to ensure that adequate standards are established to prevent infiltration by foreign terrorists or criminals.”
The seven countries affected by the 90-day ban are not specifically named in the executive order and are referenced by their inclusion in 2015 legislation flagging nations of particular concern. They are Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
The order explicitly bans “refugees” from Syria “until such time” as Trump determines “that sufficient changes have been made” in refugee screening processes “to ensure that admission of Syrian refugees is consistent with the national interest.”
Persecuted religious minorities will be prioritized when the admission of refugees commences, according to the order. Despite the travel ban, the secretaries of state and homeland security are granted authority to admit refugees from the seven affected nations “on a case-by-case basis.”
The Trump administration said Jan. 30 that lawful U.S. permanent residents from the seven countries will be allowed to reenter the U.S., according to media reports. The previous day, a federal judge temporarily banned deportation of individuals from the seven nations.
‘Concerns’ & immigrant ministries
Moore sent a letter to Trump Jan. 30 acknowledging a need to balance “security of our citizens” with “compassion for the sojourner.”
The letter expressed “concerns about the Executive Order’s consequences,” including potential “diplomatic fallout with the Muslim world, putting Southern Baptists serving in these countries in grave danger and preventing them from serving refugees and others who are in need with humanitarian assistance and the love of the gospel.”
Moore called the Trump administration to:
- “Clarify … the extent of the Executive Order to resolve the status of green card holders, Iraqi military interpreters and other ambiguities;
- “Implement additional screening measures in order that the Refugee Admission Program may be resumed as soon as possible, including for refugees from Syria;
- “Work to ensure the safety of Americans serving in majority-Muslim countries and to preserve their ability to continue serving the ‘least of these’ in the region; and
- “Affirm your administration’s commitment to religious freedom and the inalienable human dignity of persecuted people, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Yazidi or other, and adjust the Executive Order as necessary.”
Page said in written comments to Baptist Press (BP) that “Southern Baptists have spoken on numerous occasions regarding immigration.”
“We always support the rule of law and have always encouraged the protection of our citizens,” Page said. “With that being said, let me be very clear: Southern Baptists have always reached out to those who are on our shores and will continue to minister in Jesus’ name to all who are around us.”
“Disagreements” about specific government policies “surely will” continue, Page said “but the need for ministry, outreach and witness will continue to be at the forefront of who we are.”
SBC resolutions referenced immigration at least 10 times between 1846 and 2016, consistently advocating compassionate ministry (as in an 1846 call to regard a “mighty tide” of immigrants “with solemn interest”) and national security (as in a 1949 admonition for the government to observe “due care” in admitting “individuals friendly to our form of government and likely to become good citizens”).
Most recently, a 2016 resolution “on refugee ministry” “encourage[d] Southern Baptists to minister care, compassion and the gospel to refugees who come to the United States.” The resolution also “call[ed] on the governing authorities to implement the strictest security measures possible in the refugee screening and selection process, guarding against anyone intent on doing harm.”
Since 1935, SBC Annuals have reported on ministries to refugees, displaced people or immigrants in all but three or four years, according to research by the Executive Committee.
Amid reaction to Trump’s executive order, CBS’s “60 Minutes” re-aired a segment from October 2016 about the ministry to Syrian refugees of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga.
Wright, pastor of Johnson Ferry, told BP he understands government’s responsibility to protect citizens and that Trump “is fulfilling a campaign promise.” But “for us to close the door” on admitting refugees from regions in humanitarian crisis is “very disappointing.”
There was already “a very thorough vetting process” for individuals from the seven countries designated in Trump’s order, Wright said.
Offering “humanitarian help” to refugees “gives us an opportunity like we’ve never had before to share the gospel of Christ with people we just haven’t been able to get to,” Wright said.
Other pastors react
Hanna, pastor of Arabic Baptist Church in Lilburn, Ga., told BP that members of the congregation have been affected by Trump’s order. Families from Syria who were anticipating the arrival of other family members “are very sad and upset” that their reunions have been at least postponed.
“I totally understand what President Trump is trying to do,” said Hanna, an American citizen who emigrated from Egypt in 2006 to flee religious persecution. But “I wish [the administration] would look at situations case by case.”
Hanna added he likes Trump’s “idea of giving top priority to [religious] minorities” because the Obama administration seemed to limit immigration of persecuted religious minorities. Hanna hopes “second priority” will be given to families with sick or disabled children.
The conservative publication National Review reported that just 77 (.5 percent) of the 13,210 Syrian refugees admitted to the U.S. in 2016 were Christians although followers of Christ comprised approximately 10 percent of Syria’s population in 2015.
Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, said churches and individual Christians are commanded in scripture “to minister to those in need.” Yet “those who label President Trump’s new immigration policy as ‘unchristian’ and ‘discriminatory’ fail to understand the God-given role of government” to protect citizens.
“President Trump is suspending immigration into our country based on country of origin, not religion,” Jeffress said in written comments.
Trump “is right to give preference to persecuted religious minority refugees from Muslim countries like Syria,” Jeffress, who is a member of Trump’s Evangelical Executive Advisory Board, added. He noted that in a personal conversation “several weeks ago,” the president “expressed genuine concern for the 90,000 Christians who were martyred for their faith in 2016.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)