During a speech to advocates for the persecuted church, Mike Pence unveiled plans for the United States to provide more direct aid to Christians and other minorities facing genocide in the Middle East.
The vice president reiterated the Trump administration’s commitment to defending religious groups persecuted by ISIS, announcing plans to visit the region in December and a strategic shift away from funding “ineffective” United Nations programs. Instead, Pence said President Donald Trump has directed the State Department to send aid directly through USAID and faith-based partners.
“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,” Pence told the crowd gathered in Washington, DC, for the annual summit of In Defense of Christians (IDC).
“The United States will work hand in hand from this day forward 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 Christian population in the region has dwindled significantly, with two-thirds of believers in Iraq and Syria fleeing since 2011. A 2014 CT cover story by Philip Jenkins assessed how Iraqi Christians were “on the edge of extinction.”
“This is good news and we want to thank President Trump, Vice President Pence, and all those who have been working diligently on this issue,” said Frank Wolf, distinguished senior fellow at the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative. “This should impact humanitarian aid for those living as internally displaced persons and refugees and stabilization assistance for the Christians and Yazidis returning to areas seized from them by ISIS.”
The US has committed millions to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), which some have called out for not doing more to help Christians in Iraq in particular.
“The money has been spent, but not on the Christian refugees,” Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, told conservative news site LifeZette. “The UN has proven itself to be extremely politicized and unaccountable and should be the last body charged with millions—even billions—of dollars of aid to help persecuted minorities on the brink of extinction.”
Pence himself echoed the UN critique at the event.
“Here is the sad reality. The United Nations claims that more than 160 projects are in Christian areas. But for a third of those projects, there are no Christians to help,” he said. “The believers in Nineveh Iraq have had less than 2 percent of their housing needs addressed and the majority of Christians and Yazidis remain in shelters. Projects that are supposedly marked finished have little more than a UN flag hung outside an unusable building, in many cases a school.”
Many experts on humanitarian efforts in the region agreed that the United States made the right move in shifting its approach, though questions remain about the logistics and specifics about the plan Pence referenced.
“It’s the right move. The question is, ‘Are we ready for it?’” said Chris Seiple, president emeritus of the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE).
Even with the shift away from UN projects, advocates agree oversight will continue to be a challenge.
“The UN projects for the minorities have been called insignificant and cosmetic by the Christian leaders on the ground. There have been persistent reports of pay-to-play in the UN’s awarding of contracts,” Shea told CT. “Now USAID and its contractors will face a big responsibility to ensure they listen to authentic community voices about the projects most needed, and to ensure corruption is not again a large-scale problem.”
Since reconstruction is one of the only areas of economic activity in the Nineveh Plains region at this point, hiring local Christians to help rebuild is expected to draw displaced believers back to the area, according to Shea. While critics saw the UN as overlooking geo-political and spiritual factors in humanitarian disasters, the new US plan allows for intentional focus on religious forces and relationships between faith groups.
“Everybody wins if the Nineveh Plains is stable, bottom line. You have to start with the people who live there and used to live there, and that’s mostly religious minorities. And they want to stay,” said Seiple. “There’s nothing wrong with going where there is the greatest need.”
The vice president tweeted clips from his remarks, including his plans to visit the Middle East at the end of the year “to deliver the message that it is time to bring an end to the persecution of Christians.”
Religious groups including the Knights of Columbus and Aid to the Church in Need are already actively involved in rebuilding efforts. The Knights applauded Pence’s announcement, stating, “The real world impact it will have on the survival of threatened minority communities cannot be underestimated.”
Open Doors USA, which is working to rebuild homes along the Nineveh Plains, also praised the move. “We are hoping and praying for a new future for those who have had to flee in the midst of severe persecution,” the group stated. “We are grateful for the commitment of this administration to preserving these ancient Christian communities, among other religious minority groups.”
Though direct support to local churches, the government of Hungary has given 1.9 million euros toward rebuilding homes in the northern Iraq village of Telskuf, World Watch Monitor reported. This week, the returned Christians families in Telskuf had to flee again due to tension between Iraqi and Kurdish troops.
In his keynote IDC address, Pence did not offer further details on which organizations or which projects in particular the government will be partnering with. The vice president repeatedly brought up Trump’s directives and concern over the situation in the Middle East.
“Let me assure you tonight, President Trump and I see these crimes for what they are: vile acts of persecution animated by hatred for Christians in the gospel of Christ,” Pence said. “And so too does this president know who and what has perpetrated these crimes and he calls them by name: radical Islamic terrorists.”
How the country responds to the new approach in Iraq will largely depend on “how it’s going to be played by our president,” Seiple said.
Seiple, who made eight trips to Iraq between 2014 and 2016, is hopeful that the administration will follow up the announcement by turning to strong leaders and organizations on the ground in the Middle East. He also praised the work of current USAID administrator Mark Green. Seiple is looking for the US government to tell a story of Muslims, Christians, and other faiths coming together for a common cause in the region: supporting the best local initiatives to reconcile and rebuild.
“Everything that’s done in relief and development has to embed reconciliation, or else there’s no way in hell it’ll work,” he said, referencing the destruction of trust between religious and political factions in the Middle East.
Some US Christians have pushed back against the Trump administration’s immigration and refugee policy, asking the president not to deport Iraqi Christians back to their genocidal homeland and pushing back against restrictions on refugee admittance.
The evangelical aid group World Relief said Trump’s latest order on refugees, issued earlier this week after the previous ban expired, still keeps the US from doing what it can to protect persecuted Christians.
“In 2017, the US admitted far fewer Christian refugees than in prior years due to the ban on citizens of these countries and the reduction in the overall numbers of refugees allowed to find safety in America,” according to Emily Gray, a senior vice president at World Relief.
Last year, then-Secretary of State John Kerry officially designated ISIS’s atrocities against Christians and other religious minorities as genocide. The current administration, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, has continued to use that designation.
Tillerson focused this year’s international religious freedom report on the genocide, saying, “ISIS has and continues to target members of multiple religions and ethnicities for rape, kidnapping, enslavement, and death. The protection of these groups—and others who are targets of violent extremism—remains a human rights priority for the Trump administration.”
The vice president also spoke at the World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians last May.
The IDC event was sponsored by Christian organizations such as the Philos Project, the Institute on Religion and Democracy, and the Religious Freedom Institute.