President Trump has issued a White House directive forcing the State Department and USAID to bypass the United Nations and stop its "ineffective" relief efforts aimed at helping Iraqi Christians, Yazidis, and other persecuted religious minorities, and instead to provide the assistance either directly or through "faith-based groups."
Vice President Mike Pence, in a speech at the In Defense of Christians annual Solidarity Dinner highlighting the plight of persecuted Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere, announced the directive and lambasted the United Nations, arguing the international body has "often failed to help the most vulnerable communities, especially religious minorities."
"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 said.
— Vice President Mike Pence Archived (@VP45) October 25, 2017
"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," he said. "This is the moment, now is the time, and America will support these people in their hour of need."
The White House decision is at least six months in the making and comes after several lawmakers and human rights activists have repeatedly argued their case to top officials at the State Department and USAID, which have resisted any change to their "religion-blind" policy of channeling most of the aid money to the United Nations.
That policy, the two U.S. agencies have argued, is "needs-based" and does not give priority to Christians and Yazidis and other religious minorities in Iraq, even though both the Obama and the Trump administrations have publicly declared that both groups, as well as Shiite Muslims and others, have suffered genocide at the hand of ISIS.
Pence said the United Nations has repeatedly denied funding requests from faith-based groups "with proven track records" working most directly with Christians in Iraq to help provide basic necessities.
"Those days are over," he said. "Our fellow Christians and all who are persecuted in the Middle East should not have to rely on multinational institutions when America can help them directly."
Pence said the plight of Christians in Iraq and the Middle East more broadly is dire, and that they are on the verge of extinction in northern Iraq, an area where Christian communities have thrived for thousands of years.
ISIS murders and kidnappings have decimated the Christian population in Iraq, which numbered between 800,000 and 1.4 million in 2002 and is below 250,000 now, according to human rights groups.
Pence also repeatedly referred to ISIS and other extremist Muslim terrorist groups as "radical Islamic terrorism" and held them responsible for the genocide against Christians and other religious minorities.
"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 and the gospel of Christ," he said. "And so too does this president know who and what has perpetrated these crimes, and he calls them by name: radical Islamic terrorists."
Catholic charities and activists who have spent years urging the Obama administration and now Trump administration to better assist Christians, Yazidis, and other minority communities in Iraq cheered the move and Pence’s strong words.
"A year ago the United States used the right word to describe what was happening to Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East. That word was genocide. Tonight, those words were put into action," said Carl Anderson, CEO of the Knights of Columbus.
"For almost two years, the K of C has warned that Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East have been falling through the cracks in the aid system, and has been urging the United States government to provide aid directly to genocide-targeted communities. We are pleased that tonight, the administration has promised to do just that."
Anderson added that the "real impact" the new Trump policy would have to help Christians in the Middle East and the survival of minority communities "cannot be underestimated."
Other activists who helped chronicle the genocide against religious minority communities in Iraq also applauded the move.
Activists who have spent years chronicling the mass slaughter of Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities in Iraq cheered the move and Pence’s strong words.
"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 former representative Frank Wolf, (R., Va.), who spent decades as a human rights champion in Congress and is now serving as a 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."
Wolf recently returned from Iraq and testified earlier this month before both the House and Senate about the dire situation facing Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities in Iraq.
The Knights of Columbus, one of the largest Catholic charities, and Aid to the Church in Need, another global Catholic charity, have sent millions of dollars in donations to the Catholic archdiocese in northern Iraq, one of the few groups on the ground working to house and feed displaced Christians and Yazidis and help rebuild their homes.
Stephen Rasche, an attorney for the Catholic archdiocese in Erbil and the director of internal displaced people resettlement programs, in early October accused the U.N. of squandering U.S. taxpayer aid for reconstruction projects.
The aid programs are so mismanaged that some U.S. dollars are going to benefit Iraqis who took over areas that persecuted Christians fled even though the United Nations says the project is aimed at helping Christians, Rasche testified before a House Foreign Affairs panel Oct. 4.
The Washington Free Beacon obtained photos of United Nations Development Program projects in Christian and Yazidi towns in northern Iraq, showing "completed" school-rehabilitation projects that amounted to a thin coat of paint on exterior walls with freshly stenciled UNICEF logos every 30 feet.
Inside the building, the rooms remained untouched and unusable, without running water, power or any furniture, Rasche testified.
Several lawmakers and human rights activists for months have argued that U.S. agencies have a responsibility to intervene more directly and effectively.
Republican Reps. Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska, Robert Aderholt of Alabama, and Chris Smith of New Jersey, along with Democrat Rep. Anna Eshoo of California, recently 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."
"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 Nineveh Plain of Iraq," they wrote in the letter dated Oct. 12.
"Timely action would address provisions outlined in the genocide declarations and mirror the current administration's desire to help the survivors," they argued.
The State Department and USAID repeatedly stood by their religion-blind policy of dispensing aid without giving any priority to Christians, Yazidis, and other U.S.-genocide designated religious minorities in Iraq.
Late last week, a U.S. official told the Free Beacon that State Department and USAID plan to continue their policy of dispensing aid "based on need" and did not address criticism about U.N. corruption or the funds not appearing to help Christians, Yazidis and others on the ground.
"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."
As ISIS is driven from Iraq, the lawmakers and activists argue that 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 Nineveh 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."
Thousands of Christians in the town of Teleskof who had successfully returned home and were trying to rebuild their community after the area was freed from Islamic forces were forced to flee Tuesday after Kurdish forces swarmed the town and engaged in a standoff with the Iraqi army.
Sources in touch with the community said late Wednesday the situation in Teleskof was improving as a direct result of U.S. intervention.
Over the last year, Congress has taken several 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 9:29 a.m.: This post has been updated with comment from the Knights of Columbus.