Report: Bureaucrats Sabotage Aid Programs for Persecuted Christians and Yazidis

Yazidis refugees carry their belongings on January 3, 2017 in Diyarbakir, southeastern Turkey as they change their refugee camp and move to Midyat, further south. The population of Yazidis reaches 700,000, the majority residing in northern Iraq where persecution from Islamic State jihadists led to as many as 40,000 Yazidis …
ILYAS AKENGIN/AFP/Getty

A report at RealClearPolitics (RCP) on Wednesday charged that bureaucrats in the U.S. State Department under the Obama administration deliberately thwarted aid programs for Christians and Yazidis subjected to genocidal attacks in Iraq by the Islamic State.

The entrenched bureaucratic “resistance” to these programs has continued throughout the Trump administration.

The State Department officially designated the Yazidis and Iraqi Christians as victims of genocide in 2014, but the RCP article asserted that “bureaucratic factions within the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development are acting as though the genocide declaration never occurred.”

This bureaucratic resistance appears to have been grounded in a reluctance to directly assist “local faith-based groups,” preferring instead to funnel U.S. money into generic United Nations programs that explicitly forbid the direct funding of faith groups. 

President Donald Trump issued a presidential directive in 2018 to “stop using slow, ineffective and wasteful United Nations programs and to instead distribute assistance through USAID in order to provide faster and more direct aid to Christian and Yazidi communities in Iraq,” as Vice President Mike Pence’s office described it.

Pence stated that he would “not tolerate bureaucratic delays in implementing the Administration’s vision to deliver the assistance we promised to the people we pledged to help,” but according to the RCP report, delays are exactly what he got.

The State Department bureaucracy also ignored the Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act, passed unanimously in December 2018. The bill specifically named the Archdiocese of Erbil as worthy of U.S. assistance, citing its work on behalf of displaced Christians, Yazidis, and Muslims.

The response of State Department bureaucrats to these administration directives and congressional actions, according to the report, echoes officials who told House Democrats during their impeachment hearings that they determine U.S. foreign policy, not the elected President of the United States:

When the president and vice president tried to elevate the issue and enforce the new congressional mandate to direct some U.S. aid in Iraq to faith-based groups over the last year, former State Department and USAID officials and current officials accused Pence of “meddling” in internal agency contracting practices to benefit Christians over other minorities. They also have claimed that the administration’s policies toward Iraqi religious minorities are politically motivated to appeal to Christian communities in the U.S. to help Trump get reelected in 2020.

Katie Waldman, Pence’s press secretary, flatly rejects those arguments. She told RealClearPolitics that Pence is “proud of the work the Trump administration and members of his team have done to assist victims of genocide in Iraq.” Despite critics’ efforts to undermine the work, “it should come as no surprise that this administration is committed to actually doing what the president has promised – to provide aid in the most direct and effective way possible to those suffering — and we have appropriately focused on doing so.”

The ostensible reasons given for slow-walking aid to religious groups are fears that aiding Christians and Yazidis directly would enrage Muslims in Iraq and Syria, a vague concern that it might violate the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution, and a very strict interpretation of USAID regulations that financial assistance must be “made on the basis of merit, not on the basis of religious affiliation of a recipient organization or lack thereof.”

As is so often the case with “separation of church and state” issues, the bureaucracy appears to have concluded this means no religious organization can receive U.S. funding, rather than carefully vetting the awards to ensure they were not granted purely on the basis of religious affiliation.

Critics of USAID quoted by RCP noted that assistance to a religious group devastated by a genocidal attack that was itself presented by the killers as a religious crusade is very different from the U.S. government promoting one religion over others. Also, as the article pointed out, the notion that humanitarian assistance can only be provided by atheists is absurd, especially in a region with a pronounced shortage of atheists.

As for the theoretically problematic USAID regulations, they became irrelevant when the Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act was passed, since federal laws override agency regulations.

RCP’s article implied the real reasons for sabotaging the aid directives are deep-seated bureaucratic hostility to Christians, particularly Evangelicals, boosted by deep-seated hostility to Trump and Pence after the 2016 election. At a time when President Trump is under fire for “abandoning” Syrian populations by withdrawing U.S. troops, stories about Trump and Pence more effectively delivering U.S. aid to ISIS genocide victims would have confused the preferred media narrative. It is not a win anybody in the “Resistance” would want Trump to have, the story hinted.

The State bureaucracy, the story contended, also tends to be unreasonably enamored of U.N. and other international programs, and equally contemptuous of local populations. Here is how those U.N. programs in Iraq are going:

IDC produced a report documenting the problems with the U.N. work, which concluded that U.N. projects in the Nineveh Plains area of Iraq have been “rife with problems” with projects “often poorly completed and no adequate auditing mechanisms in place to check their work.”

For example, photos of a school in the town of Teleskof that the U.N. listed as refurbished through its work, showed new paint on the exterior with stenciled UNICEF logos every 30 feet. Inside, the school remained rubble and unusable without power, water and furniture. The United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) is a UNDP partner.

Stephen Rasche, the legal counsel and director of the internally displaced people resettlement programs for the Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil, testified to the House Foreign Affairs panel in the fall of 2017 that HR 390 was desperately needed because there is so little oversight of the UNDP assistance program that some U.S. dollars were going to benefit Iraqis who took over areas that persecuted Christians fled from even though the U.N. said the project was aimed at helping Christians.

Rasche also testified that UNDP claimed that work projects in the Iraqi town of Tel Kaif were directed to assist religious minority communities, even though no Christians remained there.

Aid dollars began sluggishly moving in late 2019, about a year after USAID supposedly “got serious” about complying with presidential and congressional directives. The bureaucracy wound up creating a “New Partners Initiative” that has disbursed “six very modest awards” to date.

According to RCP’s sources, the big money since 2018 has gone to “Catholic Relief Services, the Catholic Church’s large umbrella humanitarian organization, as well as the Chicago-based Heartland Alliance, an anti-poverty organization with ties to the Obama Foundation that had no significant prior working relationships or contact with displaced Iraqi Christian groups.”

Vice President Pence’s infuriated reaction indicates that isn’t what the administration had in mind when it ordered the State Department bureaucracy to help religious organizations in Iraq provide assistance to victims of genocide.

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