ROME — Although senior Vatican officials have declined to comment on the Trump administration’s announcement that it will bypass U.N. agencies in favor of providing direct U.S. assistance to help persecuted Middle Eastern Christians, others involved with such assistance have hailed the move.
Vice President Mike Pence announced Oct. 25 that, from now on, the U.S. State Department would cease funding the United Nations’ relief efforts, which he characterized as “ineffective.”
Instead, he said the Trump administration, through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), would funnel support to churches, agencies and organizations to help persecuted communities victimized by the Islamic State (ISIS) and other terror groups.
Pence told hundreds of advocates for persecuted Christians at the annual In Defense of Christians conference’s Solidarity Dinner that “Christians in the Middle East should not have to rely on multinational institutions when America can help them directly.”
“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.”
Holy See press spokesman Greg Burke and the office of Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s secretary for relations with states, both declined to comment when contacted by the Register regarding Pence’s announcement.
The announcement, singling out Christians for direct help, has been widely welcomed by others, not least by the Hungarian government, which has led the way in dealing directly with persecuted Christians rather than working through intermediaries.
In comments to the Register, Peter Heltai, ambassador-at-large for Hungary Helps — part of the Hungarian government’s dedicated support of persecuted Christians — called the policy announcement a “milestone” that brings hope and the “chance to stay or return to their homeland, instead of fleeing.”
Heltai said this new “resolution” of the U.S. to help persecuted Christians directly “can bring an enormous shift to the lives and future perspectives of these communities.”
The Knights of Columbus, which has been one of the Church’s leading contributors of aid to persecuted Christians, also welcomed the move. Supreme Knight Carl Anderson said the Knights have been saying for almost two years that aid has been “falling through the cracks” for persecuted Christians and other minorities and have been urging direct humanitarian assistance instead. (See interview here.)
Anderson said that the hope and the “real-world impact” of the announcement on Christians in the Middle East “cannot be underestimated.”
In comments to the Register earlier in October, Anderson voiced a common frustration that the administration was not doing more to help Christians in comparison to other persecuted minorities, such as the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, and said that “needs to change.”
Heltai said the Trump administration’s policy change coincides “perfectly” with Hungary’s, that it is “fantastic to see that the U.S. shares our views in this regard,” and he expressed hopes for future collaboration to preserve “the roots of our Christian culture.”
“We are really open to seek any ways of cooperation with the U.S. administration in order to set out concrete actions,” he said.
Heltai explained that the Hungarian government believes “real help begins by asking” what the persecuted need. This led to the first-ever government-level consultation in Budapest in October to ensure “effective collaboration and concrete action could be worked out.” He said the experience of such dialogue, and the “successes” of the Hungary Helps initiative in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, “prove that only direct assistance is able to provide real efficiency.”
The United Nations has been criticized for doing too little to help persecuted Christians in Iraq. Nina Shea, senior fellow and director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, told the Register Oct. 13 that the organization had been “diverting money” away from minorities who have “suffered the most grievously.”
Tanya Salseth, public affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See, told the Register that the Trump administration is “exploring options” to better ensure its assistance reaches the most vulnerable, stressing that “providing life-saving assistance to the world’s most vulnerable people, including ethnic and religious minorities,” is a “core value of the United States’ commitment to humanitarian assistance.”
She pointed out that the U.S. is the largest single donor of humanitarian assistance to the Iraq crisis, providing $1.74 billion in 2014 for vulnerable Iraqis who suffered under ISIS. Salseth stressed that the U.S. has a policy of providing humanitarian assistance “based on need, regardless of political, religious and other affiliation,” with the goal of saving lives and alleviating suffering. She added that the U.S. already bases its decisions “in coordination with host governments, host communities and relief organizations on the ground, as well as the affected populations.”
Father Robert Sirico, director of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, also welcomed the move, saying, “Anytime the American government gives less money to the U.N., I think it is a good thing.”
But he believes “a better way to help” persecuted Christians would be to “incentivize individuals and businesses to donate to their support by use of tax credits to groups helping such people.” He said this would ensure they receive the money they need, “but also leave religious organizations free of direct government support, which so often means government control.”
Catholic Relief Services, which receives government funding, said its policy team needed “some time to figure out” what the Trump administration’s decision means, as it is a “new development for us.”
Bill O’Keefe, CRS’ vice president for government relations and advocacy, said CRS looks forward to expanding its efforts with local Church partners and donors, such as USAID, in the Middle East as the “fighting stops.”
But O’Keefe defended the U.N., saying that although “reform is critically needed,” its agencies “play a critical role in camp management and overall coordination in the Middle East.” He said “care must be taken to preserve critical functions the U.N. performs.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.