The United States will soon begin its first directly funded rebuilding projects for Iraqi Christian and Yazidi communities devastated by Islamic State militants, a U.S. official said Thursday.
Plans are being finalized for 10 modest reconstruction projects for Christian communities in the Nineveh Plains and for Yazidi villages around Sinjar in northern Iraq, said Mark Green, administrator of the United States Agency for International Development.
The long-delayed projects will focus on small infrastructure jobs to help restore water and electrical service in towns populated by religious minorities that were targeted by the Islamic State, which has lost most of the territory it once held in Iraq and Syria.
“They’re individual projects that create the context for which people, if they so choose, can return to those communities, or not leave those communities,” he said.
The Trump administration is steering humanitarian aid funding in Iraq to Christian and other religious minorities, directing to them more than a third of the money allocated for “stabilization” projects aimed at rebuilding areas liberated from the Islamic State. Previously, the money went through the U.N. Development Program.
The switch was heavily promoted by Vice President Pence, who has strong ties to Christian advocacy groups that argued that the UNDP was not doing enough to aid religious minorities on the verge of extinction from a region they have been rooted in for two millennia.
Last October, in a speech at a summit for the organization In Defense of Christians, Pence vowed that the administration would make a strategic shift away from funding “ineffective” U.N. programs and start sending aid directly to persecuted communities through USAID and faith-based partners.
Since then, the United States has redeployed $118 million in humanitarian and stabilization funds. Pence’s dissatisfaction with what he considered the slow pace at which USAID was moving precipitated a shake-up in the agency’s Iraq office, and a trip to Iraq by Green and other senior officials from the State Department and White House.
On Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced an additional $17 million for cleaning land mines in the Nineveh region of Iraq, which he pointedly noted would go to areas “with large populations of religious minorities who were subject to ISIS genocide,” using a common acronym for the Islamic State.
The U.S. aid to religious minorities in Iraq was one of the centerpieces of a three-day conference held at the State Department this week to promote religious freedom. It attracted delegations from more than 80 countries, though many were led by ambassadors and other officials from embassies located in Washington. Pompeo said he will hold the event again next year.
Pence, who also addressed the crowd, said the administration will expand its efforts to help threatened religious communities.
He announced the establishment of a Genocide and Recovery Response Program to direct money to individuals and households that are trying to reestablish themselves after suffering atrocities. Although details are still being worked out, it has an initial planned budget of $10 million. It will first focus on Iraq but eventually expand to other countries.
According to a USAID official, the agency will allow genocide survivors to get medical care, replace damaged property and reestablish livelihoods through small businesses and farms.
No laws bar U.S. government agencies from funding religious groups.
Green said the aid for Iraq will not be used to rebuild churches or as donations to any sect, though faith-based organizations are among the groups that will be partners in the projects it funds.
“We are instead helping to restore geographic communities, as opposed to sectarian communities, which have been disproportionately hit, and also feel distant from recovery that’s taking place out of Baghdad,” he said. “These are communities that are caught between the Kurdish areas, and the more economically powerful areas emanating from Baghdad.”
Frank Wolf, a former Republican congressman from Virginia, applauded the administration’s efforts to provide aid to smaller communities as opposed to reconstruction in more populated areas that are the focus of UNDP projects.
“You go into villages that don’t have K Street lobbyists to fill out their application forms,” said Wolf, who traveled to Iraq last month with Green. “Their homes are destroyed. Their churches are destroyed. What the administration is doing for Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities is very, very important.”
Many Iraqis say that although the UNDP has met their survival needs, they need help moving on.
“The U.N. gave us very small things like blankets and food,” said Mor Nicodemus, the archbishop of Mosul’s Syriac Orthodox Church. “But they cannot rebuild our lives.”
Some Yazidis fear they will be shortchanged from an administration that counts Christians among its staunchest supporters.
Abid Shamden, an Iraqi Yazidi who attended the religious conference at the State Department, said Yazidi communities are still difficult to reach because of land mines in the area. With both Kurdish and Iraqi government checkpoints, a two-hour trip to Mosul can take seven or eight hours, he said.
“If the United States spends money for minorities, it will be easier to spend it in Christian areas,” said Shamden, who visited Sinjar less than two weeks ago.
“All we ask is to rebuild our towns,” he added.
Green, who did not travel to Sinjar for security reasons but met with Yazidis in Christian areas, said he urged Kurdish and Iraqi leaders to ease up on the checkpoints along the roads from Sinjar. And he promised they will get a share of reconstruction aid that will allow returning Yazidis to earn a livelihood and educate their children.
“It’s a land of pain,” he said of Iraq. “It’s very clear what the Yazidi have gone through is as disturbing as I can describe, and is ongoing. They have families that have been broken up and disappeared, as well as murder, rape and torture. We have and will continue to provide humanitarian assistance. And, as we have resources, we will continue to try to invest in projects that create this development context in which communities can be restored to some semblance of recovery.”