USAID, responding to pressure late last year from Vice President Mike Pence, announced today that it is altering its policies in order to ensure that millions of dollars in U.S. aid appropriated by Congress reaches Iraqi religious minorities.
Pence, during an October speech at a dinner highlighting the plight of persecuted Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities in the Middle East and elsewhere, promised that the Trump administration would stop the State Department's "ineffective" relief efforts that directed all the funds to United Nations, which has a religious-blind policy of disbursing the funds to all refugees in Iraq.
"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."
Two months later, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) agreed to increase assistance to religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq, to enable them to return to their homes in areas liberated by ISIS.
"Following Vice President Pence's remarks in October of last year, USAID renegotiated the terms of its agreement with the UNDP Funding Facility for Stabilization (FFS) so that $55 million of a $75 million payment will address the needs of vulnerable religious and ethnic minority communities in Ninewa Province [also called Nineveh], especially those who have been victims of atrocities by ISIS," USAID announced.
USAID said the modified agreement ensures that the U.S. contribution to the fund will help the populations in liberated areas in Nineveh province resume normal lives by restoring services such as water, electricity, sewage, health and education.
The $75 million is the first installment of the UNDP FFS fund. The rest of the pledge will depend on the UNDP's success in "putting in place additional accountability, transparency, and due-diligence measures," USAID said.
USAID also announced that it is soliciting "innovative" ideas agency-wide to support the resettlement of ethnic and religious minorities in their ancestral homes in Iraq and that the results of that competition will be announced in early Spring.
The USAID announcement is eight months in the making and comes after lawmakers and human rights activists repeatedly argued their case to top officials at the State Department and USAID, which had resisted any change to their "religion-blind" policy of channeling most of the aid money to the United Nations.
That prior policy was "needs-based" and did not give priority to Christian and other religious minorities in Iraq, even though both the Obama and the Trump administrations have declared that both groups, as well as Shiite Muslims and others, have suffered genocide at the hand of ISIS.
ISIS's campaign of murder, kidnapping, and enslavement decimated the Christian population in Iraq, which numbered between 1.4 million in 2002 and is now below 250,000, according to human rights groups who worked to chronicle the ISIS genocide in Iraq.
Catholic charities and activists who have spent years urging the Obama administration and now Trump administration to better assist minority religious communities in Iraq applauded USAID's policy change and the United Nation's commitment to help these communities with the funds.
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.
"Vice President Pence deserves great credit for turning the ship of state in order to help save Iraq's besieged religious minorities," said Nina Shea, an international human rights attorney who directs the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom.
Shea said the policy change now requires USAID to undertake the difficult task of ensuring that the troubled UNDP, which she said "has long marginalized these Christians and Yazidis, finally applies some of our funding to assist them in a meaningful way."
"All of us committed to seeing their communities survive the cradle of Christianity will be monitoring the implementation in the months ahead," she said.
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, lacking running water, power, and 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, last fall sent a letter to USAID Administrator Mark Green arguing that these communities now face "dire conditions where they desperately need assistance if they are to survive."
The concern prompted USAID counselor Thomas Staal, one of the agency's top officials, to visit Iraq in early December to see how the U.S. and Iraqi government could improve its support for minority communities following the defeat of ISIS.
Staal met with government officials in Baghdad and United Nations officials who are implementing U.S.-funded stabilization programs in Anbar, Nineveh, and Salah ad Din provinces. He also sat down with leaders of outside groups and representatives from Christian, Yazidi, Sabean-Mandea, Kakai, Baha’I, Zoroastrian, and Jewish communities to hear their concerns and needs in the post-ISIS rebuilding.
During visits to Erbil and Kirkuk, Staal met with the archbishops of the Syriac Catholic Church, the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Assyrian Church, and the Chaldean Church to discuss the aid the United States is providing. During a visit to Teleskof, he attended the rededication of the St. Gorgis Chaldean Church, a powerful symbol that survived ISIS attempts to eradicate Christian monuments and artifacts throughout Iraq.
Three and a half years ago, ISIS looted and burned the church and beheaded members of the congregation on its altar, Staal recalled in a blog post after his visit.
"I spoke to the congregation, and assured them that the United States stands with them. Americans stand with them in their hour of need, and we are committed to helping persecuted Iraqis continue to rebuild as they seek out that bright future," he wrote.