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Influential Conservative: Refugee Dispute ‘Unnecessary’

Members of The Syrian People Solidarity Group protest Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s refusal to allow Syrian refugees in the state on Nov. 22 in Austin, Texas. (Erich Schlegel/Getty Images)

Not everyone on the Christian right wants to stop Syrian refugees — the Muslim ones, anyway — from resettling here in wake of the Islamic State terror attacks on Paris.

In fact, Princeton professor Robert P. George, who The New York Times has called the country’s most influential conservative Christian thinker, says we should welcome 10 times more such refugees, 100,000 in all, than the 10,000 President Barack Obama has said we should take. George serves as an unofficial adviser to a number of the GOP presidential candidates, including his former student Sen. Ted Cruz.

All of those who’ve been identified so far as suspects in the Paris attacks are European nationals, and as such could have visited the U.S. any time. Two others who have not yet been identified seem to have entered Greece as refugees, at least one of them with a fake Syrian passport.

In this country, however, “our screening of refugees is actually quite good’’ already, George said in an interview. “And you know I’m never hesitant to criticize government agencies.” Or the president. “Because it’s quite good, it’s quite slow; even the easiest case takes a year and a half.”

“I think we’re having an unnecessary dispute” over the refugees, he said. Though the Islamic State is doubtless trying to get people into the United States any number of ways, George points out that accused terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2011, was born here. And trying to get terrorists designated as refugees who’d have no way of knowing in advance that they’d be sent to this country “is not the most efficient way to get people into the United States.”

George said he’s spoken only briefly about the issue with Cruz, during an hour-long interview for the Catholic cable network EWTN. It’s the first of a series of such interviews he’s doing with presidential candidates on how they think about various moral and constitutional issues, and is scheduled to air on Sunday. Cruz “just reiterated his position” on the security risks, George said, “and then time ran out.”

Cruz, whose base is Christian conservatives, has suggested that the U.S. should accept only Christian refugees — a position Obama has called “shameful” and “not American.” In response, the Texas senator cut an ad in which he looks into the camera and says, “Mr. President, you want to insult me, you can do it overseas, you can do it in Turkey, you can do it in foreign countries, but I would encourage you, Mr. President, come back and insult me to my face.”

The McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton, George is not a political strategist but someone conservative candidates and officials count on for advice on constitutional and social issues. It’s in that capacity that he’s an unofficial counselor to Cruz, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. He is frequently consulted by the staff of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio as well, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has named him as the thinker whose work has most influenced him.

Bush has also suggested not only that Christians should be given priority, but has erroneously said there is currently a “religious test” that’s part of the screening process, though any religious persecution is of course taken into consideration. Carson compared the Syrians refugees to “rabid dogs,” then walked back that remark.

As the chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, George knows firsthand how the system works now, and he sees the reaction of those who want to keep out Muslim refugees as some combination of anti-Islam prejudice and a lack of knowledge about how hard it is to be resettled here.

“Believe it or not, I have not won everyone over to my view that Islam is not inherently violent and Muslims shouldn’t be inherently suspect,’’ so for some, the inclination to bar Syrians who aren’t Christian or Yazidi “is a fear of the refugees themselves because they’re Muslim.’’

“For others’’ though, he said, “it’s insufficient knowledge and the justifiable position that if the government runs it, it must be suspect.”

In his view, we shouldn’t prioritize based on religion, but should first take those most vulnerable to mistreatment. Which means that “economic migrants or people who live in a war zone aren’t entitled to the same priority.”

So who fits that criteria?

“There’s no doubt that many people in Iraq and the Levant are being targeted on the basis of religion,’’ including Christians, Yazidi, and “minority Shia Muslims in predominantly Sunni areas.”

In other words, he’s arguing that religion should be a factor, but not in the way that’s currently being discussed.

Other conservative Christian leaders who disagree with the Republican House bill that passed last week, which would halt all resettlement for now, include Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, who wrote in an op-ed in the Washington Post that “evangelical Christians cannot be the people who turn our back on our mission field. We should be the ones calling the rest of the world to remember the image of God and inalienable human dignity, of persecuted people whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim or Yazidi, especially those fleeing from genocidal Islamic terrorists.”

Catholic leaders from across the political spectrum have opposed the House bill, including conservatives such as Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, who made news two years ago when he switched his voter registration to Republican, largely over the abortion issue. “It would be wrong for our nation and our state to refuse to accept refugees simply because they are Syrian or Muslim,” Tobin said in a statement last week. “In these turbulent times, it is important that prudence not be replaced by hysteria.”

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