President Donald Trump pledged Friday to prioritize Christian refugees in the Middle East as he used his executive power to suspend the U.S.'s refugee resettlement program.
Trump told the Christian Broadcasting Network that he would favor Christians after host David Brody asked, "As it relates to persecuted Christians, do you see them as kind of a priority here?"
"We are going to help them. They've been horribly treated," the president responded.
Trump went on to say it was "impossible, at least very tough" for Syrian Christians to find refuge in the United States under former President Barack Obama.
According to the State Department's Refugee Processing Center, of the 15,479 Syrian refugees granted asylum in the U.S. in 2016, only 125 were Christian: 32 Catholics, 32 Orthodox, five Protestants, four Jehovah's Witnesses and 52 who identified as Christians.
"If you were a Muslim, you could come in, but if you were a Christian, it was almost impossible and the reason that was so unfair — everybody was persecuted in all fairness — but they were chopping off the heads of everybody but more so the Christians," Trump told Brody.
World Relief President Scott Arbeiter, who on Thursday told TheBlaze that suspending the refugee program is "an answer beyond the scope of the question," commended Trump for recognizing persecuted Christians, but urged the president to welcome people of all faiths — including Muslims — into the country.
"We are eager to welcome persecuted Christians as they are suffering terribly in many countries in the world, including the Middle East, Africa and Asia," Arbeiter told TheBlaze Friday. "We are also eager to welcome vulnerable Muslim people and those of all faiths."
"We oppose any religious test that would place the suffering of one people over another," he added.
In the controversial executive order signed Friday afternoon, the president set the groundwork for a freeze on the U.S.'s refugee resettlement program. The order is also expected to establish a 30-day ban on immigration from seven predominantly-Muslim nations: Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Syria, Sudan, Yemen and Libya.
Trump, flanked by Mattis and Vice President Mike Pence at the Pentagon, said the order establishes "new vetting measures to keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States of America."
"We don't want 'em here," he continued. "We want to ensure that we are not admitting into our country the very threat our soldiers are fighting overseas. We only want to admit those into our country who will support our country and love — deeply — our people."
The president said the U.S. "will never forget the lessons of 9/11," suggesting that his executive order halting the refugee program is "honoring" those who lost their lives as a result of the attacks.
Pres. Trump: New executive order to allow "new vetting measures to keep radical Islamic terrorists" out of U.S. "We… https://t.co/9DGwbspmFZ— ABC News (@ABC News) 1485553567.0
The order has been greeted with a mixed response. Several faith groups have condemned Trump's decision to halt the refugee program.
And the American Civil Liberties Union, a left-leaning advocacy group, issued a statement Friday saying "'extreme vetting' is just a euphemism for discriminating against Muslims."
"Identifying specific countries with Muslim majorities and carving out exceptions for minority religions flies in the face of the constitutional principle that bans the government from either favoring or discriminating against particular religions," the statement read. "Any effort to discriminate against Muslims and favor other religions runs afoul of the First Amendment."
There were some, though, who praised the president's decision. Christian Freedom International, a nonprofit that aids persecuted Christians internationally, lauded Trump for prioritizing persecuted Christians.
"This means that persecuted Christians will finally be considered for resettlement," CFI President Jim Jacobson said in a statement. "Under the Obama administration, persecuted Christians from Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere were either essentially ignored or flatly denied consideration for resettlement to the U.S."