In the summer of 2014, the vicious Islamic State campaign against Yazidis and Christians in Iraq convinced President Obama to order airstrikes to try to save them from extermination. The Obama administration would officially declare the ISIS slaughter of those same religious minorities a “genocide,” a State Department designation that conveyed the urgency of protecting these groups and maintaining religious freedom and pluralism in Iraq and Northern Syria.
Five years after those ISIS massacres, however, bureaucratic factions within the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development are acting as though the genocide declaration never occurred – even though it made the survival of these religious minorities in the homeland they’ve occupied for more than a thousand years a clear U.S. foreign policy priority.
During the Obama administration career and political appointees shared an aversion to awarding government assistance to local faith-based groups. They largely channeled U.S. funds for rebuilding efforts in Iraq and Syria through the United Nations Development Program, or UNDP, which maintains a “religious-blind” policy that bars funds going to faith-based organizations.
These U.S. officials also aggressively opposed efforts to direct some U.S. funding to help local Catholic Church groups and other religious organizations that were providing almost all of the subsistence assistance to the Christian, as well as Yazidi, communities. The resistance has continued three years into the Trump administration – despite a presidential directive to fund faith-based groups and a year after the unanimous passage in both the House and the Senate of bipartisan legislation requiring the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, to channel some existing funds directly to these religious minority communities.
That legislation, HR 390 – The Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act, co-authored by Reps. Chris Smith, a Republican, and Anna Eshoo, a Democrat -- had 47 co-sponsors in the House, including seven Democrats, attracting such political opposites as conservative GOP Reps. Jeff Fortenberry and Mark Meadows, as well as liberal Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, who is leading the House impeachment charge, and fellow California Democrat Brad Sherman.
The bill cited the Archdiocese of Erbil, in Northern Iraq, which it said has provided assistance to “internally displaced Christians, Yazidis and Muslims throughout the greater Erbil region,” as especially in need of U.S. aid.
It also underscored the dramatic extent of the crisis when it comes to the fate of Christians’ fleeing their ancestral homeland: The number of Christians living in Iraq was decimated during and after the Iraq War and ISIS’ takeover of the country, from an estimated 800,000-to-1.4 million in 2002 to fewer than 250,000 in 2017.
Although the military campaign against ISIS launched by Obama and continued under President Trump has largely dismantled ISIS, the terrorist group’s violent legacy lives on. It left many homes of displaced Christians and Yazidis booby-trapped and, in many instances, other militia groups had moved in and claimed the homes as their own.
A few villages in Iraq’s Nineveh Plains area that had been clinging to viability were kept alive by millions of dollars in donations by a few international relief organizations, such as the Knights of Columbus and Aid to the Church in Need, as well as the Hungarian government, given to local Catholic entities such as the Archdiocese of Erbil.
But those resources were limited and, by the beginning of 2017, largely exhausted. Since then, the Trump administration has made protecting religious freedom at home and abroad a top stated priority. Vice President Mike Pence has spoken out forcefully on behalf of persecuted Christians and Yazidis in Iraq, as well as Chinese Uighurs and of the besieged Muslim Rohingya in Burma. Moreover, during President Trump’s tenure, the State Department hosted its first international religious freedom summits, drawing delegations from more than 80 countries dedicated to ending religious persecution and promoting tolerance and pluralism as a stabilizing democratic force throughout the world.
While delivering a U.N. speech in September, Trump called on other nations to join him in trying to end religious persecution, calling the issue an “urgent moral duty.”
Yet, none of this has broken through the entrenched attitudes in Foggy Bottom. When the president and vice president tried to elevate the issue and enforce the new congressional mandate to direct some U.S. aid in Iraq to faith-based groups over the last year, former State Department and USAID officials and current officials accused Pence of “meddling” in internal agency contracting practices to benefit Christians over other minorities. They also have claimed that the administration’s policies toward Iraqi religious minorities are politically motivated to appeal to Christian communities in the U.S. to help Trump get reelected in 2020.
Katie Waldman, Pence’s press secretary, flatly rejects those arguments. She told RealClearPolitics that Pence is “proud of the work the Trump administration and members of his team have done to assist victims of genocide in Iraq.” Despite critics’ efforts to undermine the work, “it should come as no surprise that this administration is committed to actually doing what the president has promised – to provide aid in the most direct and effective way possible to those suffering — and we have appropriately focused on doing so.”
With pressure from Congress and the administration to better serve religious minorities in Iraq, USAID, under Trump-appointed Administrator Mark Green, over the last two years has moved the agency away from directing the vast majority of its funds for Northern Iraq through the United Nations, although the U.N. still receives roughly a quarter of the funds.
“Two years ago, what USAID was doing looked so different from what we are doing today,” an agency official said in an interview. “Back then, there were only a handful of international implementers, among whom UNDP was predominant. Now we’ve got more than 100 partners, some of them faith-based, and some of them are U.N. agencies and other [well-known international aid contractors].
“It’s not just the partners, it’s the diversity of projects undertaken. We’re not just rebuilding power stations and schools; we’re providing tractors to farmers, rubble-moving equipment to the Archdiocese of Erbil. We’re working with people to get their jobs back and really trying to rebuild these societies.
“A lot more still needs to be done. … We operate slower than we should for regulatory reasons, but we’ve really made progress, and if we continue, we’re going to see changes,” the official added.
The transition has been rocky at best, spurring an internal backlash among career agency officials who continue to resent efforts to include faith-based groups.
After recent small grants to the local Christian and Yazidi groups, current and former career foreign policy officials who oppose directing aid to faith-based groups publicly argued that doing so exacerbates sectarian tension between Christians and Yazidis and the Muslim majority in Iraq and Syria – a contention that many stakeholders reject as simply false and lacking any tangible proof.
The career officials, many speaking anonymously, also have raised concerns that providing the aid directly to faith-based organizations could risk violating prohibitions on promoting one religion over another found in the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution. The career officials also point to a USAID regulation stipulating that awards “must be free from political interference or even the appearance of such interference and must be made on the basis of merit, not on the basis of religious affiliation of a recipient organization or lack thereof.”
Steven Feldstein, a former State Department and USAID official during the Obama administration, told ProPublica in an article posted in early November that “there are deliberate procurement guidelines developed over a number of years to guard precisely against this kind of behavior."
Paige Alexander, a former senior USAID official who served during the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, said in the same ProPublica article that “USAID procurement with technical review panels are strict, as they should be, to avoid any political interference on the use of U.S. taxpayer dollars.”
But some legal scholars and former State Department and USAID officials scoff at these excuses. The establishment clause argument is a red herring, they say, because it applies to attempts to promote one religion over another in the United States, not the very survival of a religion devastated by genocide and supported as a means of maintaining religious pluralism abroad.
Moreover, the USAID regulation that career officials point to doesn’t apply because HR 390, which is now a statute, supersedes any regulation by law – a fundamental difference between federal laws and the regulations they produce.
Richard Epstein, a leading libertarian legal scholar and professor of law at New York University, in an interview said there’s “no question” that federal laws override any agency regulations. As for the establishment clause, Epstein said he didn’t believe it applies in this case because the aid involves overseas entities and is being provided “to prevent a slaughter, not to try to promote a religion.”
“It would be a different thing if no money was being given to Muslim [refugee] groups as well, but in this case it’s being given simply to try to address an impossible situation,” he said.
“Pence is obviously interested in these things, but by saying that it’s [legally] in doubt because it’s being done by a devoutly religious person rather than an atheist … that wouldn’t matter under the Constitution unless it’s outside the scope of the mission as defined by HR 390.”
The vice president’s defenders say that Pence and his open Christian faith have made him an easy target for career foreign policy officials’ deep-seated biases against religion, especially evangelical Christian faiths. Pence and the Trump administration, they say, are simply trying to help the groups ISIS targeted the most and are aiming to fulfill the bipartisan congressional mandate the passage of HR 390 created but career officials have repeatedly thwarted.
“Pressure on USAID to pay attention to particular needs of Christians and other minorities did not just come from [Pence], but from the unanimous will of Congress as expressed through HR 390,” said Kent Hill, a senior fellow at and co-founder of the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington, D.C. Hill previously spent four years as a top USAID official during the George W. Bush administration.
Despite the passage of the law, Hill told RCP, USAID didn’t “get serious” about trying to respond until late 2018, and “then it took almost a year to make six very modest awards [to Iraqi-based faith-based organizations] under the ‘New Partners Initiative’ — a program specifically designed to seek out ‘new’ partners and help develop the capacity to receive larger awards in the future.”
The purpose behind the new partners program is to reduce excessive overhead costs associated with the larger NGOs, increasing efficiency and building up the capacity within indigenous populations to help their own people, instead of having large, outside organizations parachuting in to provide the services at much greater costs.
One source familiar with career officials’ resistance to these types of programs told RCP it demonstrated “blatant prejudice against the capability of local populations” and was “complicit in keeping local populations reliant and under control of highly paid international staffs with no long-term interests in the people themselves.”
“In another environment, this attitude would be called paternalistic and even neo-colonial,” the source said.
The bias at the State Department and USAID exists, Hill said, despite years of precedent for U.S. government funding of faith-based groups’ overseas humanitarian efforts. During the George W. Bush administration’s President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief or PEPFAR, more than $100 million was directed to religious groups to engage communities of faith to understand the epidemic, raise community awareness and provide testing services. This program is widely praised for saving millions of lives in Africa. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has described faith-based organizations as key partners in PEPFAR because they are the largest non-governmental provider of health services across sub-Saharan Africa.
Several members of Congress have also credited Pence with trying to ensure that the funds are reaching the groups, as Congress intended. “I commend the president and vice president for ensuring that USAID funding, as mandated by Congress, goes quickly, directly and dependably to religious minority communities targeted for genocide by ISIS,” Rep. Fortenberry told RCP.
To ensure that the aid is sustainable, Fortenberry said he is working with congressional colleagues on “a new security model that would integrate Christians and Yazidis into the Iraq and Kurdish security forces.” Along with Eshoo, Smith and others, Fortenberry actively pressed the Trump administration to bypass the United Nations to help Iraqi Christians and Yazidis, warning of U.N. corruption and mismanagement.
Toufic Baaklini, the president and chairman of the board at In Defense of Christians, a group dedicated to preserving Christianity in the Middle East, recently pointed out in an op-ed that “while the U.N. did successfully complete a few larger infrastructure projects and continues to do work in the region, anyone who was communicating with Christians and Yazidis on the ground in 2016 and 2017 knows the U.N. was woefully negligent in helping suffering genocide survivors.”
IDC produced a report documenting the problems with the U.N. work, which concluded that U.N. projects in the Nineveh Plains area of Iraq have been “rife with problems” with projects “often poorly completed and no adequate auditing mechanisms in place to check their work.”
For example, photos of a school in the town of Teleskof that the U.N. listed as refurbished through its work, showed new paint on the exterior with stenciled UNICEF logos every 30 feet. Inside, the school remained rubble and unusable without power, water and furniture. The United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) is a UNDP partner.
Stephen Rasche, the legal counsel and director of the internally displaced people resettlement programs for the Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil, testified to the House Foreign Affairs panel in the fall of 2017 that HR 390 was desperately needed because there is so little oversight of the UNDP assistance program that some U.S. dollars were going to benefit Iraqis who took over areas that persecuted Christians fled from even though the U.N. said the project was aimed at helping Christians.
Rasche also testified that UNDP claimed that work projects in the Iraqi town of Tel Kaif were directed to assist religious minority communities, even though no Christians remained there.
A UNDP spokesman defended his organization’s work in Iraq as the “cornerstone of supporting communities to recover from areas liberated by the [ISIS] caliphate.”
As of October 2019, he said, UNDP is one of the largest supporters of minority communities in Iraq in terms of volume of projects, impact and funding. While he said the work “does not draw distinctions between religious or ethnic minorities, he cited 468 “completed projects in Christian-majority towns” across the Nineveh Plains.
“The impact of these projects has been significant,” he said.
He also cited broad numbers for all people in the Nineveh Plains benefiting from its work, including 460,000 people who have “improved access to health care,” 188,000 who have “better access to clean, running water. In the Yazidi areas of Sinjar and Sinuni in Western Nineveh, he said, 69 stabilization projects have been completed, with 37 planned or underway, including a hospital and three primary health care centers and the rehabilitation of 22 schools.
The spokesman didn’t address the problematic UNDP projects Rasche cited in his testimony. A few months after Rasche made those points to Congress, Bashar Warda, the archbishop of Erbil, sat with Pence to discuss the need for more direct assistance for Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities in Iraq. In a tweet featuring a photo of their meeting, Pence said he was headed to the Middle East to “discuss U.S. plans to accelerate funding [to] those impacted in the region.”
Yet, contrary to the argument that Pence intervened too strongly to enforce the new law, Hill and others contend that administration officials, including USAID Administrator Green and Pence’s team, haven’t done enough to fight the bureaucratic forces at USAID and fulfill the goals of HR390.
Trump issued an executive order in October 2017 requiring the State Department to stop funding “ineffective relief efforts at the United Nations,” but critics who support those efforts argue his political appointees have failed to push the policy to its logical conclusion and fund the groups with the longest and strongest track record of helping the remaining Iraqi Christians survive.
In the spring of 2018, officials bypassed smaller Iraqi Catholic groups in favor of providing tens of millions of dollars to much larger organizations. The groups that were rejected, the Catholic University and the NRC in Iraq, both were formal partners with YAZDA, a Yazidi non-governmental organization, and developed their proposal together in common cause, sources familiar with the process said.
The big recipients included Catholic Relief Services, the Catholic Church’s large umbrella humanitarian organization, as well as the Chicago-based Heartland Alliance, an anti-poverty organization with ties to the Obama Foundation that had no significant prior working relationships or contact with displaced Iraqi Christian groups, according to sources familiar with its record.
When the rejected groups, which were affiliated with the Archdiocese of Erbil, complained, former Reagan administration national security adviser Robert McFarlane and Rep. Smith, who co-authored HR 390, wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal criticizing the decision and arguing that the Iraqi Christians are worse off than they were before the Trump administration.
Pence was incensed over the decision and dispatched Green to Iraq to see for himself what the U.S.-funded relief to Christian and Yazidi communities looked like on the ground. His spokeswoman also issued a statement to this reporter that Pence “would not tolerate bureaucratic delays in implementing the administration’s vision to deliver the assistance we promised to the people we pledged to help.”
Green reacted by removing Maria Longi, a career civil servant and a top official in USAID’s Middle East bureau. She remains on the USAID payroll but is teaching national security strategy at the National War College, a common refuge for exiled agency officials.
Although the act of pushing out Longi sent shockwaves through the agency last year, it didn’t break the resistance to sending direct USAID funds to Iraqi groups such as the Archdiocese of Erbil, whose needs HR 390 highlighted. It wasn’t until October 2019 that USAID announced $4 million in grants under the New Partners Initiative to six Iraqi organizations that had never previously received U.S. funding. Two of the awards went to groups that State Department officials had previously rejected, the Shlama Foundation, a small Christian charity that serves Christians and Yazidis in Iraq, and Catholic University in Erbil.
The $4 million in awards is tiny compared to the tens of millions doled out to other NGOs and hundreds of millions more in U.S. money channeled to the United Nations since the Obama administration. The $1 million Shlama Foundation award “seeks to improve job opportunities through training engineers on the installation of solar power, provide electricity for families, and install solar-powered pumps for farms and street lighting for villages,” according to a USAID press release.
The $700,000 Catholic University in Erbil award will provide “classes in business language and computer software for widows, victims of abuse, and former captives of ISIS.”
The same day, Green announced a new $18 million award to the International Organization for Migration, a secular longtime U.S. government contractor, to support the return and recovery of displaced religious and ethnic minority communities in the Nineveh Pains and Western Nineveh Province. Another longtime USAID partner, Samaritan’s Purse, an evangelical Christian humanitarian aid organization headed by Billy Graham’s eldest son, Franklin Graham, was designated to receive $9 million of that total.
It was over the last month, in the wake of those modest awards, when career USAID and State Department officials publicly voiced their strongest opposition, accusing Pence of meddling in internal agency funding decisions.
“The problems about slowing things up is that people die in the interim,” Richard Epstein told RCP. “I would certainly support religious groups when they are trying to save lives and oppose those when they are trying to destroy them. You have to have the courage to pick.”
“I think Mr. Pence should be commended rather than criticized,” he added.
The harsh criticism of the meager funding awards is especially discouraging, added Rasche, because those grants were “only received after years of frustration and broken promises” to communities that the House and Senate have unanimously recognized as “victims of genocide, deserving of support from the U.S. and now existing only on the brink of extinction.”
“This is especially so given that our small award is geared heavily toward helping women who are both minorities and victims of genocide,” he said, “and to empower young women leaders in our community. We would have thought this was a good thing.”
Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics' White House/national political correspondent.