Middle East and North Africa

Iraqi Christians say they are “worse off” despite Vice President’s promise

Archbishop Bashar Warda. Credit: Aid to the Church in Need

Much of the support promised by Vice President Pence to help persecuted Christians and other minorities in the Middle East who have suffered ISIS-directed genocide has not materialized.

Seven months ago Pence vowed to stop funding “ineffective” United Nations-led recovery efforts in northern Iraq and provide US support directly to persecuted Christians, now struggling to reclaim their homes. However much of the promised additional U.S. support has not appeared.

Although the beneficiaries have not yet been named, some of the most direly afflicted Christian groups, embedded in the region for nearly two millennia, say they have already been told by USAID that projects they submitted for financing have been vetoed, without explanation, says a FOX news report.

The rejected proposals were aimed at providing jobs and economic security, and also the means of cultural survival, for the ancient communities, whose numbers are eroding as the lack of assistance forces them to leave Iraq in order to survive.

Meantime, private-sector donations that Christian organizations had previously relied on have apparently dried up, as donors assumed U.S. assistance would be quickly forthcoming.

As Archbishop Bashar Warda, head of the Chaldean Catholic Church in the northerly, Kurdish area of Erbil, told Fox News: “We are left with still many thousands of families to care for and services to provide, and not a penny with which to do it.  In this sense, we are worse off now than we were two years ago.”

“The only support for these displaced people comes from the church, and now it seems everyone is turning away from us.”

Christianity is edging closer to extinction in Iraq, where many ancient documents and artifacts have been destroyed or defaced, according to an Associated Press report.

Archbishop Warda’s church relief organization has often been the sole pillar of support for some 60,000 brutalized Christians—in a region that once held upwards of one million—who fled waves of murder, rape, displacement and plunder inflicted by ISIS, and the ensuing war to dislodge the Islamic extremists.

His new cries of dismay are a pointed reminder that political promises, even those of a vice president, are subsequently filtered through stodgy and often recalcitrant layers of bureaucracy.

These have the final say, despite assurances in January from the White House and USAID, two months after Pence’s initial avowal, that assistance would speedily be focused on Iraq’s battered and deprived minorities, including through newly reprogrammed and highly supervised efforts by the U.N.

The continued reliance on the U.N., which already contradicted Pence’s initial promise, was seen months ago by U.S. officials as a necessary compromise:  U.N. organizations, already on the ground in Iraq, were still believed to be the fastest and most efficient way to deliver aid to the minorities that had been, as one USAID official delicately put it, “overlooked” previously, mostly by the U.N. itself.

In fact, numerous exposes have documented U.N. neglect was far more widespread than accidental, ostensibly the outcome of high-minded aid policies that claimed to be uninfluenced by religious status or minority identity—exactly the characteristics, in other words, of those most savagely repressed by ISIS.

Due in part to extensive U.N. collaboration with Iraqi government officials and other majority-Muslim interest groups, U.N. reconstruction efforts almost entirely favored a majority of returning Muslims who had fled the same conflicts, and Christian properties were often handed over to their majority neighbors.

One of the rejected proposals from Archbishop Warda’s Catholic University of Erbil, jointly submitted with an organization of Iraq’s equally persecuted non-Christian Yazidi minority, specifically called for the creation of “a property rights program to protect minority…property rights against illegal seizures in the post-ISIS period.”

All that was supposed to change in the renegotiated deal with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), which has been the lead actor on most of the international reconstruction work. About $75 million in U.S.-provided “stabilization” funding was to be refocused on areas that were ancient homelands for hundreds of thousands of Christians, as well as the Yazidis, who were equally hated by ISIS.

Most of that money was still focused on infrastructure projects that would benefit persecuted minorities and their Muslim neighbors equally, as their battered communities are rebuilt. But more communities in previously Christian areas were targeted. Additional monitors and auditors were added to the plans ensure that the stronger focus on those persecuted would remain in place.

Under the deal, another $75 million was allocated as follow-up spending, to be released once UNDP’s initial efforts were deemed to be on target.

The reformed UN efforts are underway—but so is the evaluation.

“We are still assessing,” a senior USAID official told Fox News.  “We want to make sure the efforts are ongoing. We are getting them [UNDP] to take a look at every single activity. There will be a decision in the next month or so.”

That may be no time at all in Washington, but it can easily be a lifetime in the poverty-stricken and ravaged Iraqi territories.

An even bigger cause of concern among the beleaguered minorities is some $35 million in fresh funds that bypasses the U.N., through an allegedly innovative USAID mechanism known as the Broad Agency Announcement, or BAA.

The blandly named initiative is intended to give the victims more input in a speeded-up relief effort—and, the victims of genocide thought, more direct influence on how the resulting money was awarded.

Five months after USAID officials announced the BAA’s use in northern Iraq, the outcome of the much-advertised innovation is still grinding along in the bowels of USAID bureaucracy—except for those proposals that already have been summarily rejected.

Specific financial awards under the BAA will likely be formalized “in the next couple of months,” according to a senior USAID official—who added: “We are very eager to get this done.”

According to Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the conservative Hudson Institute, the murkiness of the USAID process and the frustration felt by Iraqi Christians and minorities point to the need for an inter-agency “genocide aid coordinator” to handle the issue more decisively, something she has long advocated.

Such a coordinator “could have taken into account all the complexities, gathered pertinent information, kept principals apprised and parried the obstacles to keep the reform policy on track.” Without one, Shea fears, “there simply is no hope.”