Leaders from some of the largest evangelical denominations are worried about recent reports that the Trump administration might effectively end the US refugee resettlement program.
In a letter to President Trump, they implored him to not only keep the program but restore it to its historic levels.
"We pray you will reject any advice to shut the refugee resettlement program down and that your administration will not merely continue the program at its current, vastly reduced level," they said.
Co-signers of the letter included Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and one of the president's faith advisors; Dr. Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptists' Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission; Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals; Doug Clay, general superintendent of the Assemblies of God USA; Scott Arbeiter, president of World Relief, and others.
The leaders cited the president's commitment to ending religious persecution and noted the recent Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington which convened world leaders to promote religious freedom around the globe.
But they also noted that many of the countries that regularly violate religious freedom also produce the world's largest refugee populations. Their concern: the possibility that the president will end the program that welcomes these refugees to the US.
A report in Politico says key administration officials are considering a plan to cut the number of refugees admitted to the US to nearly zero, virtually shutting down the program that traces its origins to the 1980 Refugee Act. The law gives the president the responsibility to determine how many refugees the US accepts annually.
In years past, the average refugee ceiling was roughly 95,000. Last year, the president cut the maximum number the US would accept to 30,000. The faith leaders are asking Trump to consider boosting the ceiling back to 75,000.
Rodriguez told CBN News this week that he believes the president must differentiate between stopping the illegal flow of immigration and the plight of refugees.
"I don't want to put new caps on individuals from nations where they're suffering Christian persecution for example," he said. "We want to continue to be that place. We can be both/and. We can stop illegal flows. We can stop cartels from illegally exploiting people at the border. We can stop illegal immigration but continue to be a safe haven for those that are legitimately trying to come into America."
Refugees are those people vetted by the US and found to have a credible fear of persecution. They most often come to the US from refugee camps in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.
The administration has defended its cuts to the refugee ceiling, saying it's part of a strategic effort to improve life at home for refugees so they are not forced to flee.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CBN News' David Brody recently, "Our mission set has been to try and create the conditions inside their own countries so that they can have that religious freedom. There'll be no need to leave their country, their friends, their people, their church, their synagogue, their mosque--all the things that they know and love."
Evangelicals: A History of Refugee Ministry
For decades, evangelicals and other faith-based groups have welcomed refugees into their communities.
For the Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina, that has meant greeting refugees at the airport, helping them to settle into their new apartment and then forming relationships and helping them with practical needs as they begin a new life in the US.
Pastor KJ Hill says 500 or so church volunteers have ministered to these refugees in recent years but in the last year, they've watched as the number of refugees to their area has dropped. "There have been fewer and fewer refugees arriving to the area," he said.
Hill is concerned about the possibility of the US refugee program ending altogether. "It would be disappointing for sure," he said, "We take seriously the command of Jesus to love our neighbor, especially the vulnerable and the marginalized."
Dr. Ed Stetzer, the Billy Graham chair of church, mission and evangelism at Wheaton College, says it's not surprising that the administration is considering such a move, given the importance that the president places on immigration in advance of the 2020 election and given that a Pew poll last year revealed only one in four white evangelicals believe the US has a responsibility to accept refugees.
Still, he believes that because of the historic role that evangelicals have played in welcoming refugees to the US, they may not support a program shutdown.
"I think as followers of Jesus we would want to be among those who say, 'Can we do this safely?' And the answer is clearly and historically yes; and 'Can we do this compassionately?' And the answer is yes. So I want to be one who advocates to the government and to the president," he said.
Stetzer says evangelicals helped to persuade the president to reverse course on last year's family separation policy and could help to re-steer the ship once again. "A lot of people are saying 'perhaps this is not the best course of action,'" he said. "I would say again – zeroing out the refugee program is not the kind of nation we want to be."
Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), a former Baptist pastor, is also urging the administration to move away from consideration of ending the program. He told CBN News that he supports US vetting protocols for refugees. "It's usually an 18-month process of background checks and evaluation and they go through this long process to see who they are, what their background is, if they're safe – all of those things before they go in," he said.
In addition, said Lankford, refugees make important contributions to society. "These are folks that are good neighbors that just want a safe, stable place to go to restart their lives," he said.
The president must decide on refugee admissions by October 1st, the start of the new fiscal year.