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Rebuilding with US funds, Iraq’s minority religious communities still await security

Iraqi citizens, fleeing from Mosul and other northern Iraq towns, walk to a Kurdish security forces checkpoint in the Khazer area between the Iraqi city of Mosul and the Kurdish city of Irbil, northern Iraq, on June 25, 2014. Northern Iraq was historically a location with larger Christian and Yazidi populations. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

(RNS) — Last fall, as coalition troops broke through the last major strongholds held by the so-called Islamic State, Vice President Mike Pence delivered a speech to the advocacy group In Defense of Christians in Washington, D.C. In what attendees said was an unexpected move, he focused a sizable portion of his remarks on attacking United Nations efforts to assist Iraqi minority religious groups whose ancient, ancestral homes were ravaged by the militants.

“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. “And tonight, it is my privilege to announce that President Trump has ordered the State Department to stop funding ineffective relief efforts at the United Nations.”

Instead, Pence said, the Iraqi communities would receive support directly from the U.S. Agency for International Development to help them rebuild.

The move was celebrated by evangelical leaders in the United States, for whom the restoration of Iraq’s Christian community is a key foreign policy goal. But most parties involved say they are increasingly concerned that even the most successful rebuilding program faces a more vexing issue: security.

USAID, which has already spent approximately $700 million in humanitarian assistance for all of Iraq since 2014, unveiled a “Broad Agency Announcement” soon after Pence’s speech, expediting the process of granting funds to local nongovernmental organizations.

In December of 2017, USAID directed $6.6 million in funds for direct assistance to internally displaced people returning to Nineveh Province, where, according to The Washington Post, fewer than 200,000 Christians survive in a region that once hosted some 1.5 million. It also aided those returning to nearby Sinjar, where Yazidis have also seen their numbers dwindle, with only 500,000 left.

The State Department gave an additional $10 million specifically for Iraq’s religious minorities, the newspaper reported. A month later, USAID made a $75 million installment to the United Nations Development Program, stipulating that $55 million of it should be allotted to serve religious minorities.

General view of the Ashti camp for displaced Iraqi Christians in Irbil, Iraq, on Nov. 5, 2017. More than one thousand Christian families displaced by Islamic State militants lived in this camp for years. Few now remain as they await their return to areas retaken by Iraqi security forces. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

The funding shift was meant to help re-establish the communities after widespread atrocities emptied out villages and towns across northwestern Iraq. When the Islamic State began waging their campaign of terror in 2014, the world watched in horror as Yazidis, Christians, Shabaks and other religious minorities in the region were singled out by the infamously brutal group. Crucifixions, sexual slavery and systematic rape were used as weapons of war, as were wholesale destruction of homes.

“(The militants) would put all the furniture inside the house, then splatter graffiti all over the place, destroy the wiring, rip out the plumbing,” said Bill O’Keefe, vice president for government relations for Catholic Relief Services, recalling a recent trip to areas once populated by Iraq’s religious minorities. “The level of cruelty at that human level is overwhelming.”

The scale of the targeted killings was so extreme that then-Secretary of State John Kerry declared it genocide in 2016, a rare official distinction that encouraged the U.N. to take action. But the declaration also lends further justification for the White House’s decision to shift funding directly to the minority communities.

The World Bank and the Iraqi government estimate that rebuilding communities destroyed by the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS, will cost about $88 billion. O’Keefe said he observed locations where the Islamic State “torched every house.”

It’s unclear, however, whether any amount of rebuilding — orchestrated by the Iraqi government, USAID, CRS, and numerous other groups — will convince the historical residents to return, in the near or distant future. 

Philippe Nassif, executive director of In Defense of Christians, told Religion News Service that while some towns are policed by remaining residents or Yazidi or Christian militias, many are being guarded by the forces that reclaimed them from the Islamic State — including Shiite Muslim militias backed by Iran.

“It’s a huge concern,” Nassif said. “There’s no point in rebuilding all of these areas unless they’re safe.”

Philippe Nassif, executive director of In Defense of Christians, during the group’s 2017 summit. Photo courtesy of IDC

Nassif expressed frustration with those who blame “Muslims hating Christians” and insisted the backdrop for the militia issue is an ongoing political standoff Middle Eastern Christians know all too well — namely, the proxy war being waged between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Nassif argued that the “biggest losers when these forces go head to head are the small communities that are already caught in the middle,” and that the U.S. should push the Iraqi government to rectify the situation.

“It’s a matter of whether this administration is going to look the Iraqi government and its decision-makers in the eye and say ‘don’t mess this up.’”

Haider Elias, president of the Yazidi advocacy group Yazda, agreed, noting that “the population is too scared to go among these groups.” He added, “Security, for human beings, is number one.”

“Yazidis and Christians have lived in Kurdistan for four years now, and they have a connection to the community,” he said. “They’re not in a rush to go back.”

The White House is aware that security issues are paramount, according to officials, and say Pence is keeping a close eye on the project. In late June, USAID Administrator Mark Green and Sam Brownback, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, went on a fact-finding mission to Iraq. Green personally reported their findings to the vice president.

A USAID official said Green and Brownback observed the problem “firsthand,” and that “practically everyone they talked to talked about the security issue.”

A Pence aide would only say that the vice president was “pleased with (Green’s) assessment.” On July 5, after talking to Green, Pence tweeted, “America is committed to restoring historic Christian communities in the region ravaged by terrorism & war,” alongside an image of the vice president and the USAID administrator talking.

It’s not clear, however, what headway, if any, Green or Brownback made regarding the issue during their Iraq visit. The official report on the trip noted only that the delegation met with government leaders from Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government, including Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, to “discuss actions being taken by the Government of Iraq to better support these vulnerable populations.”

A Pence aide told RNS on Thursday (July 12) that the administration is “keenly aware of security issues in Iraq” and is “engaged with Iraqi leaders and other countries to continue collaborative efforts to suppress ISIS and counter nefarious influences in the country, including rogue militias,” though the official did not offer specific details.

Solutions are scarce. Nassif was dismissive of sending federal troops, and only tentatively floated the idea of a U.N. interim force to help secure the region. Others expressed interest in pushing for the militias to be somehow replaced with armed police forces made up of members from the religious minority groups themselves.

Meanwhile, some have said that, given the scope of the problem, USAID’s largesse won’t answer the dire need. Even after Pence’s announcement, local nongovernmental organizations complained they were being denied grants from USAID due to red tape. Others grumbled the agency didn’t announce an additional $10 million in funds for various projects until June.

Both USAID officials and Pence aides say more money is coming.

“The long-term recovery of these communities is going to be generational,” said a USAID official.

About the author

Jack Jenkins

Jack Jenkins is a national reporter for RNS based in Washington, covering U.S. Catholics and the intersection of religion and politics.

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  • What about the Yazidis and the Mandaeans and other non-Christian religious minorities? They also faced persecution in these countries. It’s not just a case of “our fellow Christians.”

  • It’s unclear, however, whether any amount of rebuilding — orchestrated by the Iraqi government, USAID, CRS, and numerous other groups — will convince the historical residents to return, in the near or distant future.

    Unclear indeed. We Americans are noted for our history of barging into countries and tearing everything apart and then leaving it to others to clean up the mess we made, Donald Trump’s recent evisceration of the NATO Alliance being only the latest example.

  • At least until the next time Europeans screw things up and want us to bail them out with lives and money.

  • After Trump, something tells me they won’t be counting on that anymore. They’re learning how to go it alone as we relinquish our longstanding leadership role in the world, or rather, as Trump does.

  • Something tells me that given their penny pinching on defense, their cozying up with the Russians, and their three centuries of consistent behavior, the odds they’re “learning to go it alone” approximate 1 in 20 or less.

  • First, what in the world is a “Trumpster”?

    Second, I get the distinct impression that you are clueless as to what transpired with the Russians PRIOR to the election which set the stage, or the fact that the FBI repeatedly warned the DNC of hacking efforts and the DNC did NOTHING, nor did their candidate when the election began.

    Finally, you do realize that the Europeans have consciously made themselves dependent on Russian natural gas – particularly Germany, leaving them at the mercy of a Russian shutdown?

    https://www.ft.com/content/7b86f4be-f08e-11e7-b220-857e26d1aca4

    This has also led the Europeans to undercut American efforts to assist Eastern Europeans since the Western Europeans don’t want to jeopardize gas supplies.

    You need to get some facts to go with your opinions.

  • I provided a lengthy response but Disqus decided my comment needs to be moderated so they removed it. Therefore, you’ll have to take it up with them.

  • I have no interest at all.

    As the indictment recently handed down on the Russians demonstrated, their target was Hillary Clinton and the DNC.

    The President had nothing at all to do with it.

    The Russians were rather upset at the Obama Administration’s “interference” in the Ukraine, which led to the collapse of a Russian puppet government, and were determined to get revenge.

    They used the same tactics on the Ukrainians they did on the DNC, exactly the same, and the same operators. The US had a clear blueprint of what was going to happen.

    The FBI had this information, warned the Administration, the Democrats, and the Clinton folks who did absolutely nothing at all. Again, the DNC and the Clinton campaign took no defensive actions whatsoever.

    When the Obama Administration’s chief cyber security official discovered what was happening, the White House put countering Russia’s attack on the U.S. presidential election on a “back burner” after he was ordered to “stand down” his efforts in the summer of 2016.

    http://journalofcyberpolicy.com/2018/06/21/obama-cyber-chief-confirms-stand-order-russian-cyberattacks-summer-2016/

    Apparently the White House assumed that Clinton had it “in the bag” and they would deal with it after she was elected with a nice quiet cover-up.

  • The White House doesn’t care that much about the plight of non-christians being persecuted. Remember we are a Christian Nation and Christians Über Alles.

  • We worked hard to provoke it.

    In fact we had been assisting the British in using depth charges on Japanese submarines months earlier, along with cutting off supplies of scrap steel and oil to Japan.

    Just as an aside, the place uses an American spelling – “Pearl Harbor” – “or” rather than a Canadian “our”.

  • An investigation was launched – the timing was awful as it would otherwise have looked tlike Obama was interfering with the election. And it was at the investigation stage. White House administration sought a bipartisan front in making the information public but Mitch found it unlikely for one. Leading to a belated announcement in October 2016.

  • You need some facts to go along with your post.

    Try these:

    https://www.wired.com/story/russian-hackers-attack-ukraine/

    https://www.npr.org/2018/02/21/587614043/fact-check-why-didnt-obama-stop-russia-s-election-interference-in-2016

    https://www.npr.org/2017/06/22/533951389/experts-suspect-russia-is-using-ukraine-as-a-cyberwar-testing-ground

    https://www.npr.org/2018/06/19/621338178/journalist-warns-cyber-attacks-present-a-perfect-weapon-against-global-order

    As New York Times national security correspondent David Sanger says in the last url, an interview about his book on the topic on NPR:

    DAVIES (NPR): I mean, the story that you write about the DNC is remarkable. I mean, first of all, Richard Clarke, who was the, you know, national security official in, I guess, the Clinton and Bush administrations, had a private firm. He looked at the DNC stuff. He said, you’re very vulnerable. You’re wide open. Do this to correct it. They said, that’s too expensive. We’ve got an election to run. They said, we’ll do it after the election, right?

    DAVIES: But then the FBI gets word in the summer of 2015 something is going on, and they call the DNC and says, well, I need to talk to your computer security people. What happens?

    SANGER: They call into the DNC and somebody connects them to the help desk.

    DAVIES: (Laughter).

    SANGER: I’m not kidding (laughter). So the help desk is staffed by somebody who is of no help, who was a young IT operator who really did not have any background in computer security and cybersecurity. But worse yet, he didn’t believe that the guy on the other end of the phone was a special agent from the FBI. He basically thought he was pulling his leg, so he hung up, OK?

    And about a month later, the FBI guy calls back. It takes months for them even to meet. And it takes until the next spring before they actually begin to persuade the DNC that they really had a problem and it was getting bigger. It was nine months between the time that the FBI first tried to contact the DNC and that the president of the United States learned that the Democratic National Committee, the place where the Watergate break-in had happened, not physically the place but the same organization – they have moved since – that they had been attacked by the Russians.

    Nine months – there are babies in America who were conceived and born in the time it took for the United States to figure out that the Russians were inside one of the main parties in the election.

    ***

    The Obama Administration’s handling of cyber defense was grossly incompetent, and not just on this matter but across the board. The Chinese got detailed information on 7% of the American population (including me) through a hack of OPM (Office of Personnel Management) EVEN THOUGH OPM AND THE ADMINISTRATION HAD BEEN WARNED TWO YEARS EARLIER IT WAS COMING.

    They may as well have a put sign up “Welcome Hackers!”

  • The innocence of Trump is yet to be proved. More likely he knew and participated.
    Stop trying to whitewash our morally derelict president.

  • You know so little. Apparently you don’t read or let anything in that doesn’t fit your worldview. This cyber attack on the USA came after extensive attacks Germany, France, Italy, the UK, etc. etc. Their citizens saw Russian plotting and voted for Macron (France) and have repeatedly voted for Angela Merkel.

    Trump of course hates the latter and attacked Teresa May, the PM of the UK just last week. He saves his mansplaining (here’s how to get Brexit through, is what he told Teresa Man) and hate speech/misogyny/disdain for women for women leaders.

  • you seem to have an opinion on everything. Too bad your biases preclude you from reading and understanding history. It was the Fascist Christian Hitler who started WWII. And Trump is proceeding in his mold, silencing the press, oppressing dissent, silencing and oppressing women, targeting LGBT and immigrants. Hate is what he preaches.

  • You seem to have an opinion everything.

    Too bad you don’t emulate others and back them up with something besides your personal impression.

    Honestly hate seems to be what you preach.

  • The way our system works … now get this … each of us is presumed innocent.

    I find the line “morally derelict president” coming from a Wiccan quite droll.

  • My point is about religious persecution in general and not just the persecution of Christians. No-one should be persecuted because of their religious beliefs. That’s the point I was trying to make.

  • Pure irony from BobbyJo Arnzen Carioca there, and hypocrisy.

    Bobber, your religion is mostly bigotry, hate, and spite. The world will be better off soon when you and it are gone.

  • Oh the irony from BobbyJo Arnzen.

    BobbyJo, you are both a Trumpster and a bigoted old as$hole.

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