Human rights activists and Catholic leaders are urging President Trump to fulfill his promise to help protect Christians, Yazidis, and other persecuted religious minorities in the Middle East by changing the way U.S. relief funds are distributed on the ground.
After meeting with Pope Francis and again in the wake of the Islamic State attack on Coptic Christians in Egypt Friday, Trump reiterated his pledge to do everything in his power to defend and protect the "historic Christian communities of the Middle East."
Turning rhetoric into actions on the ground is the next and more important step said activists and Catholic leaders.
The State Department estimated that the Christian population in Iraq numbered between 800,000 and 1.4 million in 2002; that number had dwindled to fewer than 250,000 by 2015. Without action, activists and charities say Christians could disappear completely from Iraq in the near future.
Church leaders in northern Iraq say they need $262 million for a Marshall Plan-style reconstruction of Christian-majority villages devastated by the occupation of ISIS. The Catholic Bishop's Emergency Committee, which spends $1.2 million a month to help displaced families in Iraq, in mid-May said it hopes to raise funds from a variety of government and non-state organizations in Europe and the U.S.
But key lawmakers, Catholic church leaders, and some relief workers say channeling the money to where it is most needed will require a new push from Congress and the Trump administration.
These advocates want the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and the United Nations to allow church groups and other religious-affiliated relief organizations to receive government aid, a practice prohibited during the Obama administration.
In early May, Congress allocated more than $1.3 billion in funds for refugee assistance and included specific language to try to ensure that at least some of the money is used to assist persecuted religious minorities, including Christian, Yazidis and Shia Muslims—all groups the State Department deemed victims of genocide in 2016.
Nevertheless, only $10 million is specifically earmarked for Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities. The Trump administration has only until the end of September, when the stop-gap funding bill runs out, to ensure it distributes the funds in the most effective way.
Instead of going through Iraqi government agencies or other internationally recognized groups, activists say the best way to get the aid to Christians and other persecuted minorities is through local Iraqi Catholic dioceses and parishes and other religious organizations, such as the Knights of Columbus, which have spent years on the ground working with these communities.
The money would be specifically designated for relief efforts for these persecuted communities and could not be used for other purposes, such as church-building, or more general church operations.
Groups say the special allocation is needed because Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities often do not go to Muslim-dominated refugee camps out of fear they will be targeted and killed.
"The reality is, unless something dramatic is done…we are going to see the end of Christianity in the cradle of Christendom," former Rep. Frank Wolf (R., Va.) told the Washington Free Beacon. He noted that Trump and Congress both have a chance to help Christians and Yazidis survive but swift action is needed.
"We are literally seeing the end of Christianity in the place where it began—more Biblical activity takes place in Iraq than any other country other than Israel."
Wolf spent more than three decades in Congress championing human rights issues around the globe. He currently serves as a distinguished senior fellow at the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, a human-rights organization.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A State Department spokesperson declined to say whether it is planning to change the way relief aid is distributed in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East.
"We continue our work to help address the humanitarian crisis in Iraq and Syria and will continue to consult closely with members of Congress on the ongoing situation in both countries," the spokesperson said.
Catholic leaders from Iraq were in Washington over the past week to make the case to Trump administration officials to allow U.S. funds to go to religious-affiliated groups.
Christians and Yazidi refugees remain displaced and face starvation even as the U.S.-backed Iraqi Army retakes more and more towns the Islamic State previously occupied, church leaders say.
"As never before in 2,000 years, the future of Christianity in Iraq now hangs in the balance, and whether it survives will depend in great measure on whether or not we are able to provide the essentials our people need in the short term, and whether or not they receive help with reconstruction and assurances of security in the longer term," Bashar Warda, the archbishop of the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese in Erbil, Iraq, said in a statement.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, during an interview last week on SiriusXM's Catholic Channel suggested he too had made a similar argument to the White House in recent weeks.
"Instead of giving money to the nebulous and anonymous U.N. super-national groups, let's give them to the pastors, the mother superiors. Let's use Aid to the Church in Need […] the Knights of Columbus, Knights of Malta, Catholic Relief Services […] let's use those who literally wheelbarrow them over to the camps—the medicine, the food, the sleeping bags," he said.
"For all the critiques we might have, I think we have an administration that is open to those types of things," he added, referring to the Trump White House and Cabinet.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee is considering a bipartisan bill aimed at ensuring that U.S. refugee assistance funds can go to Catholic charities and other religious organizations to help provide relief.
The bipartisan measure, authored by Reps. Chris Smith (R., N.J.) and Anna Eshoo (D., Calif.), an Armenian-American who is also of Chaldean Catholic descent, aims to ensure that the U.S. government direct a portion of the $1.3 billion for refugee services in the funding bill to these afflicted communities in Iraq, among other goals. The bill gives the secretary of State and USAID administrator the power to direct the assistance to groups they have determined are "effectively providing assistance."
The House Foreign Affairs Committee passed the bill in late March, and Eshoo said it is past time for GOP leaders to bring it the floor for a vote.
"It is unacceptable for Congress to continue to stand on the sidelines while religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq and Syria continue to face systemic persecution at the hands of ISIS," Eshoo said in an email statement to the Free Beacon.
"[The bill] would provide urgently needed humanitarian relief to the survivors of what both the Congress and the State Department have labeled as ‘genocide' and ensure we hold the perpetrators of these crimes accountable," she added.
The State Department spokesperson said the agency doesn’t comment on proposed legislation.
Smith, who traveled to Erbil in the Kurdistan region of Iraq in December, said Christian and Yazidi survivors there told him that they believed the United States had abandoned them.
"I saw first hand how the Obama administration has failed to help them," Smith said when introducing the bill in January.
More than 70,000 Christians who escaped from ISIS have relied on the Archdiocese of Erbil for food, shelter, and medical care to survive.
"Yet the Obama administration and the United Nations have refused to give a single dollar to the archdiocese to help them," he said. "They have been kept alive only because of the generosity of organizations like the Knights of Columbus and the Church in Need."
Still, the needs are so great that the local archdiocese is in constant crisis mode, unsure whether it will run out of resources to sustain the Christians, he said.
The Knights of Columbus has donated more than $12 million for Christian refugee relief and other threatened religious communities since 2014, which it says have too often been ignored by direct U.S. or U.S. government assistance.
The bulk of the funding has helped Christian communities in Iraq with food, clothing, shelter, and education. It has also helped threatened or displaced communities in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt. The Knights also have assisted other religious minority groups targeted by ISIS, including Yazidis.
Last week, the Knights of Columbus launched a new fundraising drive for emergency aid, pledging to match up to $1 million in donations received by July 1.
"A century ago, the American people helped save Christianity in the Middle East after the genocide they endured during and following World War I," said Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus. "Today, it falls to us to act, and to act quickly, if Christianity—and with it, pluralism—are to be saved in the Middle East."
Update 3:27 p.m.: This post has been updated to reflect comment from the State Department.