Vice President Pence Tackles Stalled Aid for Iraqi Christians
EDITORIAL: We applaud Pence’s quick response to the troubling reports from Iraq.
Amid disturbing news reports that delivery of vital U.S. assistance for persecuted Iraqi Christians and Yazidis had stalled, Vice President Mike Pence renewed the groundbreaking pledge he made back in October, when he announced that aid for underserved religious minorities would bypass the United Nations and go directly to Iraqi church groups, through the U.S. Agency for International Development.
“President Trump and Vice President Pence made restoring the rights and property of Iraq’s Christian and Yazidi communities a top and unceasing priority,” read Pence’s statement, released June 8. “The vice president will not tolerate bureaucratic delays in implementing the administration’s vision to deliver the assistance we promised to the people we pledged to help.”
Previously, U.S. relief had been mostly funneled through the United Nations, a practice that allowed Washington to use the global agency to provide large-scale emergency aid to a war-torn ally. But this approach often bypassed many Christians who were wary of U.N. relief programs that primarily served Muslims. Terrified by the Islamic State’s brutal treatment of nonbelievers, many Christians and Yazidis were further traumatized by the failure of their Muslim neighbors to defend their rights. Similar problems surfaced after the Iraqi government and U.N. launched a postwar reconstruction effort with U.S. help, and Christians and Yazidis saw little improvements in their communities, as the Register reported last year.
The pattern of “neglect,” said a June 5 Fox News report, was “ostensibly the outcome of high-minded aid policies that claimed to be uninfluenced by religious status or minority identity — exactly the characteristics, in other words, of those most savagely repressed by ISIS.”
Pence’s initial pledge to fund church groups through USAID sent a “clear message to all actors in the region that the U.S. was watching the situation of the persecuted minorities in Iraq,” Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil told the Register. “This political message is perhaps worth more than any financial assistance, and it will continue to remain critical to us.”
But he made clear that the policy shift announced by Pence had also raised expectations 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.”
Further, he expressed frustration that two proposals geared to job creation for Iraqi Christians had been rejected by local USAID officials, after drawing initial support in Washington.
“The proposals that were put forward by the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee and the Catholic University of Erbil 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,” he said.
A key issue for displaced Iraqi Christians is the safe return of their abandoned homes and businesses, and one of the applications rejected by USAID noted the vital need for a “program to protect minority … property rights against illegal seizures in the post-ISIS period.”
The ongoing sense of threat, combined with unresolved practical requirements and political hurdles, underscores the challenges ahead for Iraqi Christians, who have watched their fragile community shrink from more than 1.2 million in 2003 to just 250,000 now.
“Iraqi Christians don’t know what is happening next, in terms of security, jobs or whether they have a future in Iraq,” said Father Benedict Kiely, who founded Nasarean, a nonprofit that is helping Christian farmers, auto mechanics and others regain their livelihoods. He believes that local church groups are well positioned to help displaced Christians begin anew.
The question now is whether USAID staff charged with implementing Trump’s policy and distributing $35 million in promised aid to vulnerable minorities are prepared to embrace a model geared to the specific needs of vulnerable minorities.
A key issue, noted in several media reports, is the tendency for aid-agency officials to insist on religion-blind practices, even when studies confirm that this approach effectively excludes isolated faith communities — as it has in Iraq.
Another concern, as Fox News reported in June, is that U.S. aid officials have provided an additional $150 million to the U.N., even after Pence issued his October pledge. While U.S. officials sought to modify the U.N.’s approach and pressed for more accountability, they still believe the global agency’s resources offer “the fastest and most efficient way to deliver aid to the minorities that had been ‘overlooked’ previously.”
Nevertheless, Pence appears to be standing his ground and has directed USAID Administrator Mark Green to visit Iraq and provide an “immediate comprehensive assessment addressing issues that could delay the process of aid distribution.” Green, for his part, has promised to develop a “plan of action to accelerate aid to those in greatest need.”
We applaud Pence’s quick response to the troubling reports from Iraq. As U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., a leading champion of persecuted Christians on Capitol Hill, noted in a recent opinion column for The Wall Street Journal: “USAID must use whatever creativity is necessary to complete its mission and keep Mr. Pence’s pledge to Iraq’s religious minorities.”
Meanwhile, U.S. Church leaders and lay Catholics should help keep our Iraqi brothers and sisters front and center by contacting the White House to register support for Pence’s promise of aid for Iraq’s embattled religious minorities. This important work will draw inspiration from the June 12 opening of the first shrine of prayer for persecuted Christians at St. Michael’s Church in New York City. The new Shrine of Our Lady of Aradin, Mother of the Persecuted Church, said New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, will be “a gathering place of quiet reflection for those who cherish the gift of religious freedom.”
Let us continue to pray for our sisters and brothers in need and support the good work of the organizations that keep the flame of faith alive on the Nineveh Plain.