What is the status of the commitment made last fall by Vice President Mike Pence, to prioritize U.S. assistance for beleaguered Iraqi Christian communities that have suffered grievously as a result of genocidal oppression by ISIS?
According to Archbishop Bashar Warda of the Chaldean Catholic Church, the aid promised by Pence is nowhere in sight in the ancestral Christian homelands that were devastated by ISIS occupation.
Speaking last October at the annual In Defense of Christians conference’s Solidarity Dinner in Washington, the vice president declared that “Christians in the Middle East should not have to rely on multinational institutions when America can help them directly.”
Consequently, he said, the State Department would stop funding “ineffective” United Nations relief efforts and instead deliver U.S. assistance directly to churches, agencies and organizations in order to help persecuted communities victimized by ISIS and other terror groups.
But since then, Fox News reported June 5, little has materialized in terms of implementing Pence’s commitment on the ground. And the concerns of Iraqi Christians will be aired publicly next week in Washington, at a June 14 hearing of a subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, chaired by Congressman Chris Smith, R-New Jersey.
In an email interview with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond, Archbishop Warda said that since Pence’s promise was made, the situation in terms of delivering direct aid to Christians has actually worsened. And he assigned primary blame for the inaction to inappropriate decision-making by the USAID officials charged with administering $35 million in funding in northern Iraq, via USAID’s new Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) mechanism.
What is your response to the rejection of the proposals backed by the local Christian churches from USAID in the BAA funding process?
Of course this is a big disappointment to us. Our people worked very hard and in full good faith with the U.S. government on this. After the policy announcement by the Vice President in October, many U.S. representatives began to come and visit with us, all assuring that direct U.S. help to our efforts was coming soon. Many of our priests and our people believed them.
But honestly, I am not tremendously surprised, although it saddens me to say this. I have spent much time in these past four years seeing and learning first hand how things work within the U.S., its politics, its government, and its people. I know how difficult it was politically for the Vice President and the administration to speak about the Christians of Iraq in any way which appeared to give us even a small priority. I know that there are many voices within the government that do not support the effort of the Vice President.
On this however, I must say that it is still astonishing to me the degree to which it is seemingly acceptable in the U.S. and the West to continually ignore the existential needs of an our ancient civilization and people, who have been found by the U.S. government to have been victims of genocide.
How has the vice president's policy announcement changed things for the Christians of Iraq and your efforts?
In two ways, one positive and one negative.
In the positive sense, it sent a clear message to all actors in the region that the U.S. was watching the situation of the persecuted minorities in Iraq, which means mostly the Christians and Yazidis. This political message is perhaps worth more than any financial assistance, and it will continue to remain critical to us. In every meeting I had in Washington over the past month we stressed this with government leaders.
In the negative sense, the announcement left the impression that the U.S. was ready to actually fund our efforts directly after over three years of leaving us on our own. Unfortunately, this impression left most of our key donors to wind down their assistance and move on to other areas of need. In this sense, we are worse off now than we were two years ago.
Let me be specific here. There are still in our care many Christian families from Mosul, from Telkayf, from other Christian towns, none of whom factor in any plans from the UN or USAID or anywhere else. These Christians cannot return to their homes out of legitimate fear for their lives. The ISIS supporters in these towns may have shaved their beards, but they have not changed their mentalities. The only support for these displaced people comes from the Church, and now it seems many former donors have moved on. So in a tragic sense, the policy announcement, because there has been no follow through from it, has increased the difficulty of our situation. We do still have Aid to the Church in Need and the Knights of Columbus and the Government of Hungary giving us strong support, and we thank God for that. But other than these three, most other donors have moved on to the tragedy in Syria and other places.
What is your view about the projects which USAID will fund?
I do not know the details of any of these projects, but I know of the organizations that proposed them. While they all are seeking to help, none of them are indigenous to Iraq, and none of them played any major role in assisting us with the displaced Christians who fled to Erbil over the past three years. I would also note that none of these organizations are poor, or suffer from lack of funds in any way similar to our work here over the past three years. It is my understanding that all of them already receive significant financial assistance from the US government.
Additionally, from what I do know, they all seem to be survey and analysis driven projects with Western oversight and direction. In all frankness, I do not see how any of these types of things provides help to us at all. We are well aware of the situation within our communities, down to the names and needs of every person in every family. We do not need more surveys based on western models to tell us this.
The proposals that were put forward by the NRC and CUE [two Christian organizations] went directly to the core issues of preserving property rights and cultural heritage and did so in a way which would provide immediate employment and confidence to all our communities in Nineveh. How can these things be considered of lesser importance than more surveys regarding "relationship building" between communities and the like? In the West I understand that these things sound positive and important, but for us they seem as cruel farce. We have been victims of genocide at the hands of a mindset that wanted, and still wants, to kill us. Our communities are about to disappear. There is nothing to study and analyze here. We understand very clearly what is happening to us.
It appears that of the proposals that were rejected by USAID, most received a red-light rejection, meaning that no further explanation or feedback would be provided. What is your reaction to this?
This was quite a shock to us. We had received many assurances from the U.S. government that they were fully committed to working directly with us and that the BAA process gave them a flexible tool to begin this. At worst we expected them to provide a "yellow-light" response, in which they would have advised us of areas which needed to be fixed in our proposals. As they had earlier selected our proposals as having merit to move on to the next level, we understood that there were no fundamental problems in them.
With the rejection of the NRC/CUE proposals, are there any proposals from indigenous Christian groups left in the BAA process?
Not to my understanding, no. Please understand here, the NRC/CUE proposals were the only proposals which came from the group of local church-related partners who had worked together over the past three years to take care of the vast majority Christian IDPs. When the BAA process was announced, we understood that it was directly related to finding a way to help us specifically, after a period in which we had been continually denied assistance by the U.S. and the UN. Apparently we were tragically mistaken in this. Now it seems that IOM, which is essentially a UN agency, is now set to receive the largest financial award from the BAA process. This is very, very far from what we were led to believe was the purpose of the new US policy.
What is your hope for the future in terms of U.S. assistance?
First, that they will continue to provide us with political support in order to continue sending a clear message to all actors the region that the status of the persecuted minorities, including the Christians, remains a US priority. I have received personal assurances from US government leaders that this is so, and we hope that we will continue to see these assurances publicly.
Concerning financial and humanitarian assistance, we have been advised by the Vice President's office that they are still committed in this regard. In this we remain hopeful that despite the confusion from the BAA process, there is still room for the U.S. to provide direct help to us in the manner promised. We have been told that the U.S. government is working to address this now, but we have not been presented with anything concrete.
Last fall, the policy change by the administration included efforts to improve the treatment of Christian towns in the United Nations Development Program work undertaken in Nineveh. Has their been improvement there?
Regrettably, we are unable to see any real change so far. While it does seem that there are more projects which are opened, the reports we have back from the towns is that the quality of work is poor and not prioritized to the needs of the community. The work is all being done by non-Christians with no interest in the preservation of our communities. We understand that in particular the situation in Bartella is very bad regarding the quality of work done and that the people are beginning to protest there.
Also, we have information that there are many projects being done in Batnaya, which is of very grave concern to us. Batnaya is an ancient Chaldean Christian town from which the Christians have all been expelled. It is now an armed camp of the Iraqi Army and the Hashd militias. We had begged the U.S. and the UN for a year to give us help in Batnaya so that we could return our families there and not leave it vacant and open to occupation. But we received no help at all during this time, and now that it has been overrun and the Christians are all gone, we see that projects are now being implemented. Who will benefit from this now? We have real fear that the new inhabitants will be homeless Muslims from Mosul. Of course we are sympathetic to the homeless everywhere, but what are we to do about these Christians who are never considered in anybody else's plan?