NEW YORK -- President Donald Trump said at the United Nations this week that "protecting religious freedom is one of my highest priorities." But his promise rings hollow to advocates for persecuted religious minorities seeking refuge in the United States.
Trump's administration already has slashed the nation's refugee admissions ceiling to a historic low and on Thursday proposed a further cut for next year, to 18,000 — an 84% drop from the cap proposed during the last year of Barack Obama's presidency.
The president's promotion of global freedom to worship prompted the State Department to set aside 5,000 refugee slots for religious minorities. But faith-based groups that resettle refugees had urged him to avoid more erosion of a program dedicated to helping the persecuted worshippers whose oppression Trump has decried.
The list of persecuted religious groups whose access to refugee admission has withered under Trump includes Christians in Iran, Syria, Pakistan, Myanmar and Sudan, as well as Iraqi Christians and Yazidis — whose mass slaughter and enslavement by the Islamic State was labeled "genocide " by Trump's State Department in 2017.
Trump did not mention his looming decision on next year's refugee ceiling as he announced $25 million in new funding for safeguarding religious freedom, including religious sites and artifacts, at a Monday event at the U.N. On Thursday, however, his State Department pitched a set-aside for religious minorities designed to bolster the administration's commitment to freedom for all faiths.
"Compared to previous years, where we had broad allocations for regions that did not prioritize protections of beliefs ... this is a particular improvement by having a specific allocation," said a senior administration official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.
While the administration portrayed its move as bringing a better resettlement outlook for refugees fleeing religious persecution, faith-based organizations had held out hope that the program would see no further cuts beyond this year's ceiling of 30,000. During the final full year of the Obama administration, the refugee ceiling was 85,000.
"For the United States to cut refugee resettlement to half of what it was last year is an abrogation of who we are and all that we stand for as a nation," said Bishop Michael Rinehart, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service Chairman of the Board. "This decision means that thousands of people, including those fleeing violence and war, and those fleeing religious persecution, will continue to be left in harm's way."
Prior to the announcement, Free Yezidi Foundation executive director Pari Ibrahim, whose nonprofit group helps raise awareness about Yazidi persecution, said she was invited to attend Trump's speech this week and that she is "happy the U.S. government is trying to put this on the agenda." Still, Ibrahim pointed to the stark contrast between the administration's talk about helping members of her denomination and its "ridiculous" cuts to refugee admissions of Iraqi Yazidis: from 434 in fiscal year 2017, the last year the Obama administration played a role in refugee admissions, to just 5 in fiscal year 2018. Twenty Iraqi Yazidis gained access to the refugee program in the fiscal year that ends this week, according to an Associated Press analysis of State Department data.
"The genocide is still ongoing, and you wonder to yourself, is it all just talk," Ibrahim said, adding that Yazidis "need to get a second chance in their freedom in their right to believe whatever they want to believe."
The Trump administration views its investment in international religious freedom as separate from and not contradictory to its restrictive refugee policy, as explained by a State Department official who addressed the issue on condition of anonymity.
"Prioritizing security here at home is not at odds with our advancement of religious freedom abroad," the official said.
The State Department official declined to discuss the decision-making process regarding next year's refugee ceiling, which involves input from the Pentagon and other agencies, but added that the administration would seek to assist refugees "as close to their home countries as possible."
In addition to Yazidis in Iraq and Syria, other persecuted religious minorities whose refugee admissions have dropped by more than half since the final full year of the Obama administration include Christians from a half-dozen nations, according to AP's analysis. It's not clear whether the proposed 5,000 set-aside for persecuted religious minorities would have any significant impact on those falling refugee admissions numbers.
Trump's final decision on the refugee ceiling must come after consultation with Congress, where Republicans and Democrats alike had pushed for a higher resettlement cap.
Beyond the White House, some prominent evangelical Christians who have supported Trump's agenda are seeking to stanch the ebb of refugee admissions. Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, a stalwart conservative who has defended Trump's immigration agenda as consistent with the Bible, issued a statement this month in his capacity as chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom that called on "the administration to extend its admirable commitment to advancing religious freedom to its refugee resettlement policy."
Nadine Maenza, vice chair of that commission and a Trump appointee, drew a direct link between promoting religious freedom worldwide and accepting persecuted worshippers seeking refugee status.
"It's hard for us to go into a country, the U.S. government or the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom ... and talk to government leaders there and make a case that religious minorities have value, that they have dignity, they bring really wonderful things to our society — and then ourselves not be willing to take one" as a refugee, Maenza said in an interview.
A onetime adviser to former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., Maenza said "there are definitely plenty of Republicans and conservatives who are very supportive of the president that are advocating for a higher level for the refugee cap."
Refugees seeking admission must undergo screenings by eight federal agencies as part of a process initiated outside the country that can take as long as two years. Applicants must have experienced persecution on one of five grounds, religion, race, nationality, political opinions, or membership in a social group.
With the administration spotlighting its commitment to international religious freedom, the cuts to admissions of refugees whose lives can be threatened because of their faith strikes advocates as particularly glaring. The 30,000 cap set for this year by Trump's administration is the lowest since the modern resettlement program's creation in 1980.
That Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would not view "refugees as part of a religious freedom agenda, I think it's disappointing," said Jenny Yang, vice president of advocacy and policy at World Relief, another faith-based group that assists in resettling refugees.
"The fact they're even considering zeroing out a program that has literally thousands of persecuted Christians waiting to come in," Yang added, suggests that "this is a program they don't value as much as they could or strategically use as much as they could."
Associated Press religion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through the Religion News Foundation. The AP is solely responsible for this content.