It probably comes as news to most people that the US wasn’t sending relief to Christian and Yazidi survivors of genocide these past many years they’ve been so endangered. Especially since a lot of money was directed to aid persecuted minorities during President Obama’s administration, which continued through the first year of President Trump’s. Where did it go?
Leading human rights expert Nina Shea has taken every opportunity possible to tell that story, enfolded within the greater narrative of the unfolding disaster in the Middle East.
An example, from late last month:
Since fiscal 2014, the US has provided $1.4 billion in humanitarian aid for Iraq, but very little of it has reached the beleaguered Christian and Yazidi communities. This is because the Obama administration decided to channel most of it through United Nations refugee and development agencies, a practice the new administration has continued. There is no protection for religious minorities in the UN’s overwhelmingly Muslim camps, and Christians and Yazidis are terrified of entering them. The UN doesn’t operate camps in Iraq for displaced Christians, and the international body has enough resources to shelter only half the Yazidis who congregate around Dohuk, in Iraqi Kurdistan. UN programs also exclude the local churches that struggle to care for these minorities, forcing them to raise aid on a piecemeal and insecure basis from other sources.
This has been the remarkably bad, sad truth about their plight. Furthermore…
Far lower percentages of Christians and Yazidis are returning from displacement to their homes in the devastated Nineveh Plains and Sinjar, respectively, compared with the larger religious groups in Tikrit, Fallujah and Mosul. The prior (Obama) administration decided to have US reconstruction assistance, now at $265 million since fiscal 2015, also flow through the UN The director of the US Agency for International Development, Mark Green, started only last month and has not yet moved to change this policy.
(As of the end of September.)
USAID lacks direct oversight in Nineveh and relies heavily on UN Development Program reports that claim progress in Christian towns. One local church authority told me the UN reports “grossly overstate the quality and substance of the actual work” and their projects’ influence is “minimal or nonexistent.” A representative from the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee, a unified church group, told me earlier this month that the only major projects under way are its own. These are supported by Hungary and the Knights of Columbus. Samaritan’s Purse and Aid to the Church in Need are planning projects in Qaraqosh, also without US government assistance. These private charities can rebuild houses, but large infrastructure projects need government aid.
The UN acknowledges that most of the displaced minorities have not returned home and have shown “a reluctance to return without guarantees of their security and the stability of their towns and villages.” Church leaders close to the displaced are excluded from UN and Iraqi government committees that decide stabilization projects, track progress and ensure locals are hired for them.
And yet, administrative foot-dragging continued.
Earlier this year, Congress allocated more than $1.4 billion in funds for refugee assistance and included specific language to ensure that part of the money would be used to assist Yazidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims—all groups the State Department deemed victims of genocide in 2016. Over the summer, Tillerson affirmed his belief that these religious minority groups in Iraq are the victims of Islamic-State genocide.
Lawmakers who passed the bills providing the funds, as well as human rights activists and Catholic charities, were encouraged by Tillerson’s affirmation of the genocide declaration, but they say his statements have done nothing to change the situation on the ground. The Yazidis and Christians are still not getting the necessary money to help them rebuild their lives and communities in the Northern Iraq’s Ninevah province, where they have thrived for thousands of years.
The Knights of Columbus, a global Catholic charity helping with the housing, feeding, and medical care of thousands of Yazidis and Christians, has stated that a much larger rebuilding plan is needed to save them from extinction in Iraq.
Stephen Rasche, general counsel of the Archdiocese of Erbil, Iraq, applauded the State Department’s assistance to the Rohingya community in Burma. However, he and other Catholic leaders remain “deeply concerned” that the US government has still directed “little or no aid” to the Christian community in Iraq despite its clear declaration that ISIS committed genocide against Christians.
Then Congress intervened, especially four key members of the House of Representatives.
The urgent push comes amid dire warnings from lawmakers and human rights activists that Christians and Yazidis, already victims of genocide at the hands of the Islamic State, are on the verge of extinction in Northern Iraq, their home for thousands of years.
The lawmakers also point to new evidence of corruption in the United Nations’ process for stabilization projects in Iraq.
That came just days before In Defense of Christians‘ annual Summit in Washington DC, featuring dozens of international human rights leaders, clergy, members of government, and Vice President Mike Pence representing the Trump administration.
Pence revealed President Trump has ordered the State Department “to stop ineffective relief efforts at the United Nations, and from this day forward, America will provide support directly to persecuted communities through USAID.
In a statement likely intended as a wakeup call to the global diplomatic community, Pence added, “We will no longer rely on the United Nations alone to assist persecuted Christians and minorities in the wake of genocide and the atrocities of terrorist groups.”
Instead, Pence said, federal agencies “will work hand-in-hand with faith-based groups and private organizations to help those who are persecuted for their faith.”
Pence made it clear that the Trump administration is specifically focused on protecting Christians as part of its national-security agenda. “Christianity is under unprecedented assault in those ancient lands where it first grew,” the vice president said. “Across the wider Middle East, we can now see a future in many areas without a Christian faith. But tonight, I came to tell you: Help is on the way.”
The ‘international religious freedom as national security issue’ message is one experts have been emphasizing for years. In his address, Pence signaled that the administration got the message.
Since the president took office, he has been promising to eradicate terrorism and eliminate the “beachhead of intolerance” created by radicalism. What was different here is that Pence promised a policy shift to accompany the rhetoric: Based on claims that the United Nations often denies funding requests from faith-based organizations and provides only “ineffective relief efforts,” the administration will now “provide support directly” through USAID.
Conservative religious-freedom advocates have long pushed for money to be redirected away from the UN. “I am overjoyed,” said Nina Shea, the director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute. “The [UN] projects that are taking place are superficial and cosmetic projects—coats of paint rather than a renovation or a reconstruction.” This funding shift, she said, is “a battle won.”
The author attempts to diminish the importance of the shift in funds late in the piece, calling it “misleading”, but it is she who is misled. Yes, the money will go to private NGOs on the ground doing the person to person relief work. But they are the best groups, like the Knights of Columbus, Aid to the Church in Need, and others which apply the full funding to the intended recipients and take no portion for their own costs. They are professionals, they know the people and the specific needs, and apply their full resources to addressing them.
In December, when Pence visits the Middle East, “one of the messages I will bring on the president’s behalf … is that now is the time to bring an end to the persecution of Christians and all religious minorities,” he said on Wednesday. The Associated Press reports that he will visit Israel and meet with Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the president of Egypt. While “the Trump administration came in saying they don’t want to do nation building,” said Shea, she argued that this focus on persecuted Christians is something different: “It’s a moral obligation and a legal obligation to, in a broad sense, help them recover from the genocide.”
It’s long overdue.
Sheila Liaugminas writes from Chicago. She is a journalist, author and host of A Closer Look on Relevant Radio.