Peter Jesserer Smith is a staff reporter for the National Catholic Register. He covered Pope Francis’s historic visit to the United States in 2015, and to Jerusalem and the Holy Land in 2014. He has reported on the Syrian and Iraqi refugee crisis, including from Jordan and Lebanon on an Egan Fellowship from Catholic Relief Services. Before coming on board the Register in 2013, he was a freelance writer, reporting for Catholic media outlets as the Register and Our Sunday Visitor. He is a graduate of the National Journalism Center and earned a B.A. in Philosophy at Christendom College, where he co-founded the student newspaper, The Rambler, and served as its editor. He comes originally from the Finger Lakes region of New York State.
WASHINGTON — Advocates for persecuted Christians and minorities in the Middle East received an unexpected “bombshell” of good news straight from Vice President Mike Pence on Wednesday evening that may change the odds for the survival of Christianity in its historic cradle of Iraq.
Pence delivered the keynote address at the JW Marriott hotel for the annual In Defense of Christians conference’s Solidarity Dinner and told the hundreds of attendees that President Donald Trump has ordered the U.S. State Department “from this day forward” to stop funding the United Nations’ ineffective relief efforts. Instead, he said the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) would also funnel support to the churches, agencies and organizations working directly with persecuted communities victimized by the Islamic State (ISIS) and other terror groups.
“Christians in the Middle East should not have to rely on multinational institutions when America can help them directly,” Pence stated.
“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,” he added. “The United States will work hand in hand with faith-based groups and private organizations to help those who are persecuted for their faith. This is the moment, now is the time, and America will support these people in their hour of need.”
The unexpected White House announcement thrilled advocates for Iraq’s Christian community, which, along with the Yazidi and other indigenous religious communities, suffered genocide when ISIS, also known as Daesh, swept into Iraq in 2014, conquering Mosul and the Nineveh Plain. Although ISIS is nearly defeated in Iraq, the failure to rebuild quickly Christians’ homes and community infrastructure in this ancestral homeland of northern Iraq raises the risk that ISIS’ project of genocide could still be completed after the extremist group’s political death, especially if other ethno-religious groups move in.
Andrew Doran, IDC vice president and senior policy adviser, told the Register that Pence’s announcement is “a game changer” for the survival of Christians and other minorities in Iraq.
“All organizations doing aid for the victims of genocide and crimes against humanity, who were working with religious institutions, Christians in particular, have to be feeling enormously encouraged following the vice president’s speech tonight,” he said.
Throughout the past three years, Iraq’s displaced Christians, consisting mostly of Assyrians, Syriacs and Chaldeans living in their ancestral homeland of Mosul and the Nineveh Plain, were completely supported and sustained by the region’s churches and other forms of private support — not the United Nations. Christians considered U.N. camps too dangerous to enter and consequently did not receive direct humanitarian aid through U.N. agencies.
Instead, the region’s churches, whether in Iraqi Kurdistan, Lebanon or Jordan — provided Iraq’s displaced Christians with material support and sustained them through tens of millions of dollars in private aid fed through an interlocking network of religious-based charities, such as the Knights of Columbus, Aid to the Church in Need, Catholic Near East Welfare Association, and Catholic Relief Services, among others.
Congress had also allocated $1.4 billion to help genocide victims of ISIS rebuild their lives. However, the State Department under President Barack Obama’s administration relied on the United Nations to distribute aid and did not work with churches and other charities working directly with genocide victims.
That funding arrangement, however, led to hardly any of that money being spent on the return of Christians. An IDC analysis, published on Oct. 24, called out the gross inaccuracies of the U.N.’s Development Program (UNDP). In “Iraq Stablization for Nineveh Report,” IDC found at least one-third of the UNDP’s projects meant for Christian areas are actually being done in which Christians either do not live or have not returned. The U.N.’s 161 listed projects for Christian areas are “rife with problems” and poorly executed. Only one project is actually directed at housing, even though less than 2% of Christian housing needs are currently met. IDC cited UNDP’s own figures to show that while non-Christian towns in Iraq are seeing a 73% rate of return, Christian towns have seen only a 19% return.
An Oct. 12 bipartisan congressional letter that called for USAID to stop relying on the U.N., and work instead directly with “credible organizations” already supporting genocide victims on the ground, stated repatriating Christians and other minorities to their homeland in northern Iraq would serve U.S. national security interests by helping to stabilize the country, as well as deny Iran a land bridge to the Mediterranean Sea.
Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, told the Register that the White House’s decision has come at a much-needed moment for Iraq’s Christians, who have felt like they are on the brink of extinction.
“We won one,” she said. “It is a bombshell. This is something I and others have been working on for several years.”
Shea said the U.S. government up to this point had not held the UNDP accountable for how it was spending USAID money, because U.S. government employees just stayed within their consulate compounds.
The U.N.’s mismanagement of USAID funds, Shea explained, has not helped Christians return, and in some cases, it has made it impossible. One UNICEF school for Christians, she said, had a beautifully painted exterior — the interior was still rubble and uninhabitable. But in the formerly Christian town of Telkayf, Christians will not return because the UNDP actually “resettled the extended families of ISIS there.”
“The Christians are terrified to return now,” she said.
The security situation for Christians and other minority regions in Iraq, Shea said, still needs to be improved. That very morning, she had received panicked messages from Christians who had been forced out of their town due to fighting between the Kurdish peshmerga and the Iraqi army. Thankfully, the U.S. soon intervened and de-escalated the conflict.
But, overall, these actions from the U.S. government, she explained, showed a “sea change in commitment” to help Christians and other genocide victims that had just not existed in the previous administration.
Implementing these commitments across the board is the challenge, because the State Department is not fully staffed. Trump’s appointments to political posts are languishing, and in the State Department, many people are not yet in place to oversee and implement thoroughly the administration’s policies. Former Gov. Sam Brownback, Trump’s pick for ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, for example, has only had one hearing in the U.S. Senate and not yet confirmed to his post.
But if the Trump administration gets USAID money flowing directly into the reputable organizations and churches trying to rebuild these communities subjected to ISIS’ genocide, it will mean hope for Christianity and other small ethno-religious groups in Iraq.
“This is an extremely significant policy shift,” Shea said. “This has the potential of making the difference of whether this early ancient Church, in this community that began 2,000 years ago and traces its faith to St. Thomas the Apostle, survives or not in this place of Nineveh.”