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Under pressure from Pence, U.S. aid is directed to Christian, Yazidi communities in Iraq

Iraqi Christians pray during a Mass on Christmas at an Orthodox church in the town of Bashiqa, east of Mosul, Iraq, in 2016. (Khalid Al Mousily/Reuters)

The premier U.S. aid agency is poised to send millions of dollars directly to Christian and Yazidi communities in Iraq under a rarely used, streamlined funding arrangement after coming under pressure from Vice President Pence.

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) will give $10 million to two umbrella groups, including one headed by Catholic Relief Services, said Mark Green, USAID administrator. Later, $25 million will be disbursed to help “persecuted communities” in Iraq, primarily Christians on the Nineveh Plains and Yazidis in Sinjar.

That will bring the total of U.S. aid to the two religious minorities in the current fiscal year to more than $100 million, including more than a third of the money allocated for “stabilization” projects aimed at rebuilding areas liberated from the Islamic State.

The fast-tracking of the aid is a victory for religious advocates who had sought help for communities that have been present in Iraq for millennia but have been devastated and are on the verge of vanishing from the region after many of their people fled when the Islamic State took over.

The aid push also underscores the priority the Trump administration has placed on helping Christians, even in an era of steep cuts proposed for foreign aid.

The administration was lobbied to send more aid to the two beleaguered communities by groups that had pressed the State Department to declare in 2016 that the Islamic State had committed genocide against Christians, Yazidis and Shiite Muslims.

They expressed concern that time was running out before Christians in the region became “extinct.” The ranks of Christians in Nineveh, who numbered 1.5 million before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, have dwindled to under 200,000. The Yazidis also are greatly diminished, with an estimated 500,000 living in and around Sinjar.

U.S. policy is to provide aid without discriminating on the basis of religion, politics or other affiliations. But as victims of genocide, religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq are considered among the most vulnerable.

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“Why would you not give aid on the basis of creed if it’s genocide based on creed,” said Nina Shea, head of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute and a leader of the coalition advocating for more aid. “They’re survivors of genocide, the most heinous of all human rights abuses and atrocities. We vowed after the Holocaust that never again would we be passive, never again would we let a community flounder and vanish.”

After hearing complaints that aid was slow in coming, the coalition of faith-based groups brought the matter to Pence’s attention.

Pence has closely monitored USAID’s efforts since October, when he told the group In Defense of Christians that the administration will bypass “ineffective” programs run by the United Nations and redirect aid to religious minorities in Iraq through USAID and faith-based organizations. Money started flowing.

In December, USAID gave $6.6 million to three nongovernmental organizations to help people returning to Nineveh Province, and the State Department gave $10 million for religious minorities in Iraq.

In January, USAID redirected $55 million of the first $75 million installment to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) for rebuilding projects in Iraq and said the second $75 million installment was being withheld until it was assured it was being well spent. It has since allocated $4 million for health needs in Nineveh and is seeking local groups with which to collaborate for $35 million in additional grants.

The UNDP disputes the allegation that it has been slow in delivering aid to Nineveh and Sinjar. Marta Ruedas, the deputy special representative of the secretary general in Iraq, said USAID funds have helped support more than 340 projects. Dozens have been launched in Nineveh alone, including water treatment plants, wells, schools, health-care centers, a major hospital and power substations.

But the need is so great that the assistance is perceived as insufficient. The World Bank and Iraqi government have estimated a cost of $88 billion to rebuild communities destroyed by the Islamic State as well as by the campaign to retake those communities from the militants. UNDP projects cover just 1 percent of that cost.

“We know a lot of work is happening,” said a USAID official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the situation frankly. “As a lot of communities will tell you, a lot of needs need be addressed even if a hospital is up and running.”

But Pence was unhappy with the progress in the field. He recently “directed” Green to go to Iraq before the end of this month and report back to him on plans to get assistance there quickly, according to a statement from the vice president’s office.

In a sharp-edged statement on Friday, Pence’s office said the vice president “will not tolerate bureaucratic delays.”

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According to a U.S. official familiar with Pence’s concern that, as he saw it, USAID had failed to prioritize the issue, the vice president told Green that he would support any personnel changes the USAID administrator chose to make.

Before the end of the day, the head of USAID’s Middle East bureau, a career Foreign Service officer, was replaced by a political appointee who had worked on development projects under Green at the International Republican Institute.

“I want to make a promise to each and every one of you,” Pence said Wednesday in a speech at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in Texas. “We will not rest until we give our fellow Christians and persecuted communities across the Middle East the resources and support they need to recover, rebuild, and flourish in their ancient homeland once again.”

It is unclear which groups will lose aid because U.S. help is being steered toward religious minorities, or whether the preference will fuel future tensions in a country already deeply divided along sectarian lines.

Groups that sought Pence’s intervention say the small communities of Christians and Yazidis have been overlooked in four years of war and strife as aid went to larger groups of displaced Iraqis in desperate need.

“The vice president’s announcement in October made clear the communities targeted for genocide by ISIS would no longer be overlooked by U.S. government aid to the region,” said Andrew Walther, vice president of communications for the fraternal service organization Knights of Columbus.

In a speech Thursday, USAID’s Green compared the aid for Christians and Yazidis in Iraq to aid for Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims, who are often called the world’s most persecuted minority. He does not worry that the allocation of U.S. aid will be looked at as favoring one religious group over another.

“No, because we’re working with so many other religiously persecuted communities,” he said. “We are standing up for them.”