Programs' Religious Ties Raise Concerns

By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 23, 2009

NEW YORK, July 22 -- The U.S. Agency for International Development funded programs that rebuilt Iraqi mosques and used biblical lessons to promote sexual abstinence in Africa, despite a prohibition on the use of taxpayer funds to support "inherently religious activities," according to a new audit by the agency's inspector general.

USAID challenged the inspector general's findings in a written response, saying that the main goals of its programs in Africa and Iraq were secular in nature. The report focused on projects initiated from 2006 to 2007 under the Bush administration.

The issues in question have been complicated by legal ambiguities over whether the constitutional separation of church and state applies to programs that are designed to advance American foreign policy abroad. The inspector general's report noted that the Justice Department is currently weighing a request from the aid agency to determine whether its practices were legal.

The audit identified more than $325,000 in expenditures for the rehabilitation of four mosques in Fallujah, Iraq. It also cited concerns that the use of Christian stories in HIV/AIDS prevention programs in Africa could be seen as showing a "USAID-funded preference for Christianity."

As part of one faith-based abstinence program in Africa, officials conducted a session urging youth to memorize and recite Psalm 119:9, which says, "How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word." Participants were then instructed to recite the passage's "key concept": "God has a plan for sex and this plan will help you and protect you from harm."

The agency acknowledged that some of its abstinence programs included "religiously infused materials," but said that they showed no preference for Christian groups. USAID also maintained that the mosque repairs were aimed at gaining political support and providing jobs for unemployed Iraqi youths.

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