Mixed messages from Washington have left Syrian Christians confused about the effect of U.S. restrictions on refugees and travelers from several Muslim-majority countries, with some seeing hope fading away.
U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Friday that put a four-month hold on allowing refugees into the United States and temporarily barred travelers from Syria and six other countries.
The order also seeks to prioritize refugees fleeing religious persecution, a move Trump separately said was aimed at helping Christians in Syria to leave.
But hopes were dashed for at least one Syrian Christian Orthodox family, who were turned away at Philadelphia international airport and had to return to Lebanon.
Christians in Damascus, where Syria‘s conflict is still felt as fighting rages through much of the country, said pledges to prioritize minorities made little difference to them.
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“Getting U.S. visas has been the dream of all citizens in developing countries, no matter their religion,” said Youssef Touma, 34, attending a church service in Damascus on Sunday.
“Syrians of all faiths were used to queueing at the U.S. embassy’s gates (to try to get visas). But it was almost impossible to get them, and has been harder since the war started.
“What I heard is that there will be exceptions for Christians from the ban, but not the easing of Christians’ travel – so that means there are still the same difficulties getting a visa,” Touma said.
Norma, a 30-year-old IT worker at the same church who declined to give her surname, said travel to the United States was a distant and impracticable dream.
“I don’t know or have anyone in the U.S. If there was someone I knew, an aunt or uncle, then I’d think about going myself, of course. And it would be better to undertake a safe journey to America instead of a risky one by boat to get to Germany,” she said.
Syrians in neighboring countries like Lebanon and Turkey have said they will primarily seek refuge in Europe, where some countries like Germany have taken in hundreds of thousands of refugees. Many have made dangerous crossings by boat from Turkey.
Christians wishing to leave Syria said the U.S. preference for religious minorities could play into the hands of Islamist extremists. At the very least, it would have no real impact.
“I think (Islamist) extremists here would love for us to leave, to be rid of us,” said Damascus resident Joseph Memari, reached by phone.
Trump wrote on his Twitter account on Sunday: “Christians in the Middle-East have been executed in large numbers. We cannot allow this horror to continue!”
Touma said statements made no difference. “Minorities are always targeted by extremists and Trump’s statements will not increase or decrease that,” he said.
“They have been targeted since before Trump became president. The Christians of Maaloula (near Damascus) left the country before Trump was even considering the presidency.
“Christians of the Damascus countryside, like Harasta and Douma, were forced to leave their homes five years ago,” he said.