PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A Syrian archbishop said the United States' reluctance to offer asylum to persecuted Christians is "unjust" and appealed for help withstanding Islamic militants fighting to root out their faith.
Aleppo Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart pleaded on Tuesday while visiting Philadelphia for help for those who don't receive asylum and remain in the Middle East.
"If you like us, help us stay in Syria and Lebanon and Iraq and continue to be a presence of Jesus Christ in that part of the world," he said.
The Islamic State group's rise has forced hundreds of thousands of Syrian and Iraqi Christians from their homes, threatening a religion that has survived in the region for 2,000 years and spurring a growing worldwide humanitarian effort.
Refugees have flooded unoccupied cities, such as Erbil in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, and neighboring countries including Jordan and Turkey. Millions of charity dollars have poured in for new homes and schools, food and health care.
The Knights of Columbus, which has contributed more than $3 million, said Tuesday at its annual convention in Philadelphia that it is launching a national fundraising and advertising campaign to aid refugees and raise awareness of their plight.
The White House has said President Barack Obama is committed to helping Iraq's minority communities and is deeply concerned about the threat the Islamic State group poses. The Department of State has sent aid and said it remains in regular contact with Iraqi Christians, church leaders and relief organizations. It said the U.S. has announced hundreds of millions of dollars in life-saving assistance for those affected by fighting in Syria.
Erbil Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda asked people to "speak for the Christians in the Middle East."
"They have been subject to all kinds of violence because they are Christians," Warda said at a news conference about the humanitarian effort. "It is your responsibility — it is your duty to speak for them. This is part of being an American."
Jeanbart and Warda said they are resolved to build back their churches, even as oppressive violence and the lure of immigration continues to slash their ranks.
The Christian population in Iraq has dropped from 1.3 million to 300,000 since the start of the Iraq War in 2003, Warda said. More than 80,000 Christians have fled Aleppo in the last five years, Jeanbart said.
"It's very hard for us to see our church and our communities disintegrating," Jeanbart said.
Some refugees have made new lives in Australia and Canada, but Warda said many who applied for U.S. visas have come away disappointed and frustrated with a system they see as unfairly rewarding Muslims who have aided their oppression or who have not spoken against it.
The U.S. has admitted 727 Christians and 4,205 Muslims from Iraq and 23 Christians and 812 Muslims from Syria since Jan. 1, according to the Worldwide Refugee Admissions Processing System.
Jeanbart said perhaps American people's opinions "can make pressure on the decision makers that we may put in their priority human beings. Not wars, petrol and money."