US aid will finally go to persecuted Christians

So declares a resolute Vice President Mike Pence.

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 U.S. 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 U.N.’s overwhelmingly Muslim camps, and Christians and Yazidis are terrified of entering them. The U.N. 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. U.N. 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 U.S. reconstruction assistance, now at $265 million since fiscal 2015, also flow through the U.N. The director of the U.S. 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 U.N. Development Program reports that claim progress in Christian towns. One local church authority told me the U.N. 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 U.S. government assistance. These private charities can rebuild houses, but large infrastructure projects need government aid.

 

The U.N. 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 U.N. 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 U.S. 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 D.C., 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.”

Some Christian media called it a “bombshell”. The Atlantic report it, in grand understatement, as a shift.

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.

Genocide Resolution needs congressional attention

Signatures. It needs signatures on the bottom line.

It’s more than words on paper, but let’s start with the words.

Members of Congress introduced a resolution on Thursday to label the atrocities committed by the Islamic State against Christians and other religious minorities “genocide.”

“Christians in Iraq and Syria are hanging on in the face of the Islamic State’s barbarous onslaught. This is genocide,” stated Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., who helped introduce the resolution. Fortenberry is co-chair of the Religious Minorities in the Middle East Caucus.

“The international community must confront the scandalous silence about their plight. Christians, Yezidis and other religious minorities have every right to remain in their ancestral homelands,” he continued.

Six representatives — three Democrats and three Republicans — introduced the bipartisan resolution. On Thursday, advocates with the non-partisan group In Defense of Christians met with more than 250 congressional offices, asking them to support the resolution.

Quoting from the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the document states that the atrocities committed against Christians and the other religious minorities in the Middle East meet the convention’s definition of genocide.

That’s hugely important, say experts I’ve spoken with on this particular topic on radio in the past month. Call it what it is, name it, and especially declare that it is genocide, says Princeton Professor Robert George, Chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. And Thomas Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University. And Congressman Jeff Fortenberry, Co-Chair of the Religious Minorities in the Middle East Caucus and author of this Resolution.

The resolution also called for governments to stop the atrocities and for U.N. member states to sign on to a “concurrent resolution” and “with an urgent appeal to the Arab states that wish to uphold religious freedom, tolerance and justice.” The parties must also help set up “domestic, regional and international tribunals to punish those responsible for the ongoing crimes.”

Skeptics who think Congress pushes a lot of paper and gets little done should pay attention to this. It carries weight, and can have an impact.

USCIRF Chief Robert George told me this will task Congress with a different mission, once the language of ‘genocide’ is used officially. Renowned international human rights advocate Dr. Thomas Farr told me that passing a resolution in Congress requires action by the U.S. government, “by treaty and by law”. It “creates a gateway” for the United States to provide humanitarian aid, protection and faster refugee processing for victims of the atrocities, calling them what they are, ‘crimes against humanity’, said Cong. Fortenberry, one of the leaders helping In Defense of Christians expand and extend the campaign of awareness and relief in a network of global advocacy and activism.

Along with human rights hero Congressman Frank Wolf, Dr. Farr has long passionately worked for religious freedom and protection of minorities from persecution and now, genocide. Here’s the letter both collaborated on to ask President Obama to call what is happening what it is, genocide.

We write as an informal and diverse group of non-governmental organizations and individuals who are scholars, religious leaders, and human rights advocates to express our grave concern for religious minorities, among them Yezidis, Christians and Shia Muslims, at the hands of the Islamic State. We urge you to formally declare the systematic destruction of these ancient communities a genocide.

Mounting evidence indisputably shows the Islamic State’s ongoing genocidal campaign in the Middle East through its attempts to create a global caliphate devoid of religious freedom and diversity. For more than a year, the news headlines have been replete with stories of almost unimaginable human suffering caused by the Islamic State. Religious minorities in these lands, among them the ancient Christian, Yezidi and Shia Muslim communities, have suffered grave injustices: displacement, forced conversion, kidnapping, rape and death…

A report released in March from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights on the human rights situation in Iraq states, “It is reasonable to conclude that some of these incidents, considering the overall information, may constitute genocide.” Furthermore, the report calls for the Security Council “to remain seized of and address, in the strongest terms, information that points to genocide.” It is imperative that the United States government and the global community universally acknowledge this issue as such.

As opposed to previous such instances in modern history, there has been no attempt by the Islamic State to conceal its actions. On the contrary, the group shamelessly broadcasts decapitations, crucifixions, forced drownings and other horrors with the sole purpose of spreading its message of destruction and recruiting more agents to the ranks of its diabolical insurgency. Under the Islamic State, religious minorities now face an existential crisis and live on the edge of extinction in the lands that many have inhabited since antiquity. These communities will continue on a trajectory of tragic and precipitous decline into eventual non existence without swift moral leadership on behalf of the administration and the international community.

(Emphasis added.)

It is our belief that officially declaring and subsequently halting this genocide and its spread is a matter of vital moral and strategic importance for the United States, the international community, and the overall state of religious freedom around the world. Perhaps equally as important, such a declaration will give a stronger voice to the long suffering victims while furthering and sharpening ideological engagement against those currently at the forefront of this campaign.

We humbly request that your office publicly acknowledge and denounce the Islamic State’s actions as genocide and act with all due haste to ensure that this ongoing, abominable crime is halted, prevented and punished and that the religious freedom and human dignity of all people currently suffering under the Islamic State are allowed to flourish.

Meanwhile

The Islamist genocide — and there can be no doubt that it is genocide, despite world silence – of the Christians, Yazidis, Mandeans, and other defenseless ethno-religious minorities of Syria and Iraq continues. The killing of these peoples is deliberate and brutal and is rooted in religious hatred of the “infidel.” It is meted out in sudden violent executions, mass deportations, and the gradual, methodical destruction of their civilizations. Washington is blind to this genocide that occurs alongside, but is separate from, a sectarian Muslim power struggle. It has failed to defend them militarily. Now it is failing to provide humanitarian help in the only manner left: resettling the survivors out of harm’s way, in countries where they will be able to rebuild their families and preserve their unique ancient cultures without fear. Rescue is the very minimum we can do to help these victims of genocide.

Read it and weep.

Nina Shea concludes, for now, with this:

Dakhil says the Yazidis feel abandoned by Washington and the world. Iraqi Christian and Mandean representatives have recently said the same to me. Many of these peoples are desperate to leave the region. They do not want to leave to seek economic opportunities, or even to escape the wartime deprivations, but to save their lives and the lives of their children. They are not being targeted because they are political dissidents or bear arms in conflict. They are targeted solely for religious reasons. This is genocide and we are morally and legally bound to help them. A military resolution to this crisis will be too late for these peoples. Catholic priest Father Douglas Bazi, the director of the renowned Mar Elias refugee encampment for Iraqi Christians in Erbil, tells me: “Help us live. Help us leave.” They need visas. The West can easily provide them, and it must.

While we wait for the US president to respond, the UK Prime Minister got engaged.

David Cameron has given his support to a new report into the persecution of Christians around the world.

In a statement read out at the launch of Aid to the Church in Need’s ‘Persecuted and Forgotten? A report on Christians oppressed for their faith 2013-15? at the House of Lords today, the Prime Minister said that, “Every day in countries across the world, Christians are systematically discriminated against, exploited and even driven from their homes because of their faith.”

“No believer should have to live in fear, and this is why (the British) Government is committed to promoting religious freedom and tolerance at home and around the world,” he added.

“It is also why the work of organisations such as Aid to the Church in Need is so crucial. This report serves as a voice for the voiceless, from their prison cells and the places far from home where they have sought refuge. Now is not the time for silence. We must stand together and fight for a world where no one is persecuted because of what they believe.”

According to the report, Christianity is on course to disappear from Iraq “possibly within five years” unless the international community offer substantial assistance to the persecuted faithful there.

This is a global alert.

The report features a foreword by Archbishop Jean-Clément Jeanbart of Aleppo, Syria, whose city has been destroyed by fighting.

In it he wrote: “My own cathedral has been bombed six times and is now unusable. My home has also been hit more than 10 times. We are facing the rage of an extremist jihad; we may disappear soon. In both Syria and Iraq, Christian communities – along with other vulnerable minorities – are defenceless against assaults by Daesh (ISIS). We are the prime target of the so-called caliphate’s religious cleansing campaign.”

This isn’t another news story to shake our heads at and say ‘that’s too bad, someone ought to do something.’ This is a coalition of international leaders trying to do something.

Recently, the In Defense of Christians (IDC) organization presented Dr. Thomas Farr with a Lifetime Achievement Award for his tireless work in human rights. Two international leading officials of IDC presented Dr. Farr with a crucifix from a church in Mosul, Iraq to be held in safe-keeping until it could be returned upon the restoration of Christianity in the region.

I only learned that after he last spoke with me, recently, on radio. It gave even more gravity to his urgent appeal for citizens in the US to call on their Members of Congress, the men and women people elected to serve there, to support two pieces of urgent legislation in the House of Representatives.

H.R. 1150:

…amending the International Religious Freedom Act to give Ambassador Saperstein the status that other ambassadors at large at the Department of State enjoy, the authority to develop an interagency strategy to protect global religious freedom, and the resources he needs to implement that strategy. It would also mandate training for all foreign service officers, deputy chiefs of mission, and country ambassadors. This training would ensure that our diplomats fully understand and can effectively defend the free expression of religion worldwide, the enduring value of religious freedom and its relationship to national security, and how to advance the cause of religious liberty in our foreign policy. (emphasis added)

And H.R 75 (down the list of ‘Whereas’ specifications):

Whereas, on July 10, 2015, Pope Francis, Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, declared that Middle Eastern Christians are facing genocide, a reality that must be ‘‘denounced’’ and that ‘‘In this third world war, waged piecemeal, which we are now experiencing, a form of genocideand I stress the word genocide—is taking place, and it must end.’’ (emphasis added)

The people are calling on government, purported and in fact elected to be the leaders of the free world, to DO something, for crying out loud.

And if they lack ideas, many suggestions are contained therein.