Pence Demands USAID Break Through Bureaucratic Gridlock to Help Iraqi Christians, Yazidis

VP incensed over agency decisions to deny funds and ‘will not tolerate bureaucratic delays’

A group of Yazidis from Iraq carrying their arrive at a makeshift camp at the Greek-Macedonian border
June 9, 2018

Incensed over bureaucratic attempts to thwart a direct White House executive order, Vice President Mike Pence is dispatching U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Mark Green to Iraq to ensure that U.S. taxpayer dollars are going to help save Christian and Yazidi communities decimated by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Pence issued the announcement Friday afternoon after waiting months for USAID to comply with a promise he issued during a dinner last October.

"President Trump and Vice President Pence made restoring the rights and property of Iraq's Christian and Yazidi communities, who were nearly wiped out by ISIS's genocidal campaign against them, a top and unceasing priority of this administration," Pence spokeswoman Alyssa Farah said in a statement Friday afternoon.

"The vice president will not tolerate bureaucratic delays in implementing the administration's vision to deliver the assistance we promised to the people we pledged to help," she added.

The Vice President, she said, has directed USAID Administrator Mark Green to travel to Iraq in the coming weeks to report back with an "immediate comprehensive assessment addressing issues that could delay the process of aid distribution."

Green, in a statement also issued late Friday afternoon, said the organization has already channeled "tens of millions to the region, but we know the need is far greater, and that we must do more to meet the urge needs of the endangered populations—and we will."

He promised to follow Pence's orders to go to Iraq and report back with a "plan of action to accelerate aide to those in greatest need."

Pence was irate after learning this week about the lack of progress in getting aid to Christian and Yazidi communities and reports of "bureaucratic gridlock keeping much-needed aid from helpless Christian communities," a source familiar with the controversy told the Washington Free Beacon.

The vice president has directed Green to travel to Iraq to expedite the grant-making process and ensure aid gets to the most vulnerable communities as quickly as possible in the interim, the source said.

The vice president said in October that help for these persecuted communities in Iraq was already on the way because President Trump had "ordered the State Department to stop funding ineffective relief efforts at the United Nations."

"From this day forward, America will provide support directly to persecuted communities through USAID," Pence said at the time.

The pledge earned Pence high praise from human rights groups and the international Christian community. However, seven months later, Catholic archbishops in Iraq had complained that not only had the aid not yet arrived but also that their plight had actually gotten worse because groups who had heard Pence's October pledge truly believed that help was on its way from the U.S. government and had stopped sending their own funds.

Rep. Chris Smith (R., N.J.), a leading human rights activist in Congress who chairs the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee that oversees international organizations, and Robert McFarlane, President Reagan's national security adviser, penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on Thursday complaining about the delays.

USAID officials had blocked proposals totaling $5 million from two groups, the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee and the Catholic University in Erbil, Smith and McFarlane wrote.

The two entities for years had run effective humanitarian efforts for Christians, Yazidis, and other minority religious communities in Nineveh Plain, home to one of the oldest Christian communities in the world and considered by many to be the cradle of Christianity.

The USAID official gave no reason for rejecting their proposals, only a terse message that it would not be providing any additional information to the organizations that were not selected.

When the organizations followed up with questions, they received an automated reply that the official who had sent the rejection letter had gone on leave for a month, according to Smith and McFarlane.

Instead, USAID approved proposals from the International Organization for Migration, a group tied to the United Nations, which has lost credibility among U.S. activists for shoddy work and failing to direct the money to the Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities effectively.

"Career staff at USAID have ignored Mr. Pence's words and thwarted the clear intent of the Trump administration," Smith and McFarlane wrote. "As a result, the light of Iraqi Christianity could be permanently extinguished." They also highlighted national security implications: "If Iraq's minority communities collapse, Iran will be ever freer to exert control over the region and consolidate a land bridge to Syria."

The Archbishop of Erbil and the Knights of Columbus said on Friday they remain optimistic that the U.S. government will provide the aid to help the communities.

Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, who led humanitarian efforts for more than 100,000 displaced Christians and many Yazidis after the ISIS invasion in 2014, told that that he believes action is being taken to direct the U.S. government funds to these communities.

"We had some proposals rejected by the USAID process," he said. "But now we understand that a number of possible aid packages are still being worked on by the U.S. government."

"This gives me great hope," he continued. "I know from my meeting with the vice president and his staff several months ago that they really care about those persecuted for their faith and for the future of religious pluralism in the region."

He also praised the Knights of Columbus as well as Aid to the Church in Need, which have joined to provide tens of millions of dollars in aid to Christians in their care in Iraq.

"Without them, we would not have survived," he said.

The Knights of Columbus has provided $14 million to Iraqi Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq since 2014. Knights of Columbus CEO Carl Anderson said the survival of Christians in the Middle East is "critical to religious pluralism and as a witness to forgiveness."

He also specifically praised Pence and his staff for "real leadership" on the issue.

"This administration has shown conviction, courage and human decency by publicly stating its commitment to address the needs of genocide-devastated minority communities," he said.

USAID had balked at previous Trump administration directives to provide the funding directly to the Catholic groups on the ground who were most active in helping the Christians and Yazidi survive during the years of exile from their homeland when they fled ISIS persecution.

Top officials at the State Department and USAID had resisted any change to their religion-blind policy of channeling most of the U.S. taxpayer dollars to the United Nations.

ISIS's campaign of murder, kidnapping, and enslavement radically reduced 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.

Pence's promise last October was eight months in the making, as the State Department and USAID previously put up several hurdles and would not agree to direct the funds to indigenous groups in Iraq, agreeing at one point only to a "pilot program" to evaluate how it would work.