America: Forever the Great Hope

Last Sunday a Letter to the Editor asked how anyone could think America need to take refugees from war-torn Arab nations. It argued that such refugees should not be allowed to stay because they “won’t fight to save their own nations” and that Westerners were “dummies” to give them shelter.  

Why should America take religious and other refugees? I’ll start with the words of Ronald Reagan from his famous speech called “A Time for Choosing” in 1964. “Not too long ago, two friends of mine were talking to a Cuban refugee,” Reagan explained. “And in the midst of his story one of my friends turned to the other and said ‘We don’t know how lucky we are.’ And the Cuban stopped and said, ‘How lucky you are? I had someplace to escape to.’ And in that sentence he told us the entire story. If we lose freedom here, there’s no place to escape to. This is the last stand on earth.”

Reagan ended with a famous line. “You and I have a rendezvous with destiny,” he said. “We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on Earth, or we will sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.”

The greatest threat to freedom in 1964 was Soviet Communism. The greatest threat today is ISIS and its savage ilk who are forcing hundreds of thousands of Christians, Muslims, and others from their homes in the Middle East. These refugees have created a humanitarian crisis in Europe, and there are no easy answers.

Those who would deny refugee status to all of those fleeing ISIS bring to mind the tragic voyage of the St. Louis steamship in 1939, which carried 937 Jews fleeing Hitler across the Atlantic Ocean only to be denied entry in Havana and the United States. They left port on May 13 in Hamburg, Germany and arrived in Havana on May 27 to be turned away. After leaving Havana, the ship came so close to the U.S. that they could see the lights of Miami. Passengers on the ship begged the State Department and President Roosevelt to allow them to enter. Their requests were ignored and on June 6, the ship set sail back to Europe. Some found refuge in Great Britain and others re-settled on continental Europe. For those who disembarked on the continent, their refuge proved all too brief. Nearly half died in the Holocaust.

The St. Louis is a relative anomaly in American history. Rather than turning away the persecuted, America actually has a long history of sheltering those suffering for their religion or other status. Historically, Missouri has been more welcoming of those fleeing religious prosecution than other states – particularly mid-Missouri. The Catholics who built Westphalia, Hermann, Freeburg, and other communities in mid-Missouri were fleeing religious persecution in Germany and seeking fellow Germans in America.

And, of course, we descendants of German Catholic immigrants in mid-Missouri are the heirs of just one tiny pocket of religious exiles. In fact, the Pilgrims journeyed to Plymouth Rock precisely to flee religious persecution, and, according to the Library of Congress, early colonists fled European societies where “non-conformists could expect no mercy and might be executed as heretics.”

Does that sound like anything happening today? It should. It’s exactly what happened to Jews in Hitler’s Germany. And it’s also what ISIS is doing.

Both Christians and Muslims are fleeing. The CBS program 60 Minutes reported in March that more than 125,000 Christians in Iraq had been expelled from their homes where they and their ancestors have lived since the first century after Christ. Imagine what fear drove those families to abandon their homes? The 60 Minutes story reported that, “for the first time in 2,000 years, there are no Christians left inside Mosul.” Archbishop Nicodemus Sharaf of the Syriac Orthodox Church told Lara Logan, “They take everything from us, but they cannot take the God from our hearts, they cannot.”

“Just like the Nazis marked the property of the Jews,” Logan explained.. “Christian homes in Mosul have been marked with this red symbol. It’s the Arabic letter N – for Nasara – an early Islamic term for Christians. When ISIS puts it on your home, you either convert to Islam, pay an extortion tax or face the sword.”

I was amazed that last Sunday’s letter castigated the refugees for abandoning their homes and failing to fight ISIS. Does the writer really expect three year-old Aylan Kurdi and his mother to take up arms against the ISIS thugs who would, in the best case scenario, rape and enslave them?

I understand the fear associated with Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Unlike previous refugee groups, ISIS could slip members into those fleeing.  (Those who denied the Jews on the St. Louis refuge claimed it was a ship full of communists.) It’s also obvious that the United States should not have to carry the heaviest load. At some point, it’s hoped that they will be able to return to their homeland.

I know this won’t be popular in all quarters in this time where a temporarily popular presidential candidate has promised to reject all Syrian refugees without exception. But I’m not willing to abandon America’s heritage as a refuge for persecuted religious minorities. Nor will I stand silent while others advocate actions that would enable modern-day Hitlers to perpetrate another Holocaust.

There has to be an appropriate screening system in place. We have to be discerning. Our nation has the right of self-defense to turn away those who would do us harm. Further, we can’t take everyone. But to suggest that we turn our backs on all refugees, including those who can prove their innocence and good will, is both un-Christian and un-American. Those refugees (Christian and Muslim) who can pass a thorough background check should be welcome in Europe and the United States – like the Jewish passengers on the St. Louis should have been welcomed ashore when fleeing Hitler.

Reagan believed America was the last great hope for man on earth. I believe that’s still true today. If America listens to those who would completely abandon our role as the protectors of the persecuted, that last best hope on Earth will be extinguished forever. Far better to move carefully, but in the spirit of Reagan and the Pilgrims than to abandon a fundamental American value. America has always been and should forever remain a safe haven for religious refugees.