Four House members are pressing the top official of the U.S. Agency for International Development to bypass the United Nations and channel funds intended to help Christians and Yazidis in Iraq directly to Catholic charities and others helping them on the ground.
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.
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The lawmakers also point to new evidence of corruption in the United Nations' process for stabilization projects in Iraq.
Republican Reps. Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska, Robert Aderholt of Alabama, and Chris Smith of New Jersey, along with Democrat Rep. Anna Eshoo of California, sent a letter to USAID Administrator Mark Green last week arguing that these communities now face "dire conditions where they desperately need assistance if they are to survive."
"Returning Christians, Yazidis, and others to their rightful place will reknit the once rich tapestry of pluralism and diversity that existed in the region—an effort that is essential to any hope of durable stability in Iraq and the region," they wrote in a letter dated Oct. 12.
Fortenberry, Aderholt, and Smith are longtime human rights champions. Eshoo has a personal interest in the mission. She is a Chaldean Catholic and first-generation American. Her mother is Armenian and her father is an Assyrian Christian from Iraq.
The letter is the latest effort by a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House and Senate, along with human rights activists and Catholic groups, to persuade the State Department and USAID to change the Obama-era policy of directing most of its money to Iraq through the United Nations.
The lawmakers argue that Catholic charities most connected to the communities on the ground are the only groups that have a track record of helping persecuted minorities survive for the last several years and are best positioned to help them return and rebuild. The United Nations, they argue, has little to show for its assistance to these communities.
The State Department and USAID for years have maintained a "religion-blind" policy when it comes to dispensing aid. They say they distribute the funds based on need and do not give priority to a particular group, even those facing U.S. government-designated ethnic cleansing or genocide.
Critics have questioned whether the State Department truly abides by their own "need-based" policies after the United States quickly dispatched $32 million in late September to help the Rohingya, a majority-Muslim group fleeing violence in Burma.
A U.S. official told the Washington Free Beacon Wednesday that the State Department and USAID plan to continue their policy of dispensing aid "based on need" and did not address criticism about UN corruption or the funds not appearing to help Christians, Yezidis, and other minority communities on the ground in Iraq.
"As the world's humanitarian leader, the United States is committed to providing life-saving assistance to those in need," the U.S. official said. "When providing the assistance, the United States does not discriminate based on race, religion or creed – we provide the assistance based on need."
The official also asserted that the "United States has provided assistance that reaches Christian and other minority communities in Iraq, and pointed to nearly $1.7 billion dating back to fiscal year 2014 that the U.S. government has provided to address all the humanitarian needs of Iraqis "both inside Iraq and in the region, including vulnerable members of minority communities, like the Yezidis and Christians."
Lawmakers argue that most of the money the United States has provided is directed through the UN, which has little to show for its assistance to these communities.
They argue Catholic charities most connected to the communities on the ground are the only groups that have a track record of helping persecuted minorities survive for the last several years and are best positioned to help them return and rebuild.
As the Washington Free Beacon reported earlier this month, photos of the few United Nations Development Program projects in Ninevah show the work being done is mostly cosmetic in nature. This contradicts claims for the United Nations, which has suggested far more substantial work has been done.
Steve Rasche, an attorney for the Catholic archdiocese of Northern Iraq testified before a House hearing that so-called "completed" school-rehabilitation projects in the towns of Teleskov and Batnaya "take the form of one think coat of painting of the exterior surface walls, with freshly stenciled UNICEF logos every 30 feet."
Inside, he said, the rooms remain untouched and unusable.
U.S. agencies have a responsibility to intervene more directly and effectively, the lawmakers argue, especially after both the Obama and Trump administrations have declared that Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities in Iraq are the victims of ISIS genocide.
"USAID has an immediate opportunity to partner with entities committee to the appropriate reconstruction of damaged homes and public buildings in several key towns in the Ninevah Plan of Iraq," they wrote.
"Timely action would address provisions outlined in the genocide declarations and mirror the current administration's desire to help the survivors," they argued.
As ISIS is driven from Iraq, it is also critical to U.S. national security that that these indigenous communities are supported to prevent Iran from gaining influence in the region.
"Repatriation has a strategic advantage of heading off potential conflict between the KRG and Baghdad while barring an Iranian land bridge to the Mediterranean, which presently threats to fill the vacuum in the Ninevah Plain created by the removal of ISIS," the lawmakers wrote. "This land bridge will be occupied by forces loyal to Tehran if security and rebuilding fails to come from other quarters."
Congress has taken a number of steps to try to provide direct assistance to the minority populations in Iraq. 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 in Iraq.
The House passed legislation, cosponsored by Smith and Eshoo, that would explicitly authorize the State Department and USAID to direct aid to faith-based entities, such as the Archdiocese of Erbil following congressional delegations to the region.
More recently, the House and Senate have held hearings about the need for the Trump administration to act quickly to get the funds where they are needed.
"We implore you to review proposals from credible organizations on the ground in the region who are committed to these goals, and if deemed worthy, to move swiftly to empower the through available resources to rebuild the region," they lawmakers wrote.
Update Oct. 19, 10:36 a.m.: This post has been updated to reflect comment from a U.S. official.