Amid Pence promises, persecuted Iraqi Christians still in perilous limbo

See below for an update to this story

EXCLUSIVE: Hundreds of thousands of persecuted Christians, Yazidis and other minorities driven from battered northern Iraq are still in a perilous limbo, as humanitarian groups struggle to make sense of a new Trump Administration initiative rolled out after Vice President Mike Pence’s October 25 promise to “stop funding ineffective relief efforts at the United Nations” and “provide support directly to persecuted communities through USAID.”

Humanitarian groups have called the Administration declaration a big step forward in helping the sorely-neglected minority groups recover from genocidal waves of murder, rape, displacement and plunder inflicted by now-defeated ISIS forces.

But there is still much uncertainty about how the initiative will work, what money will be involved, and how the effort will be coordinated—and above all, when it will get going..

There is also a lot of perplexity among some humanitarian groups about what  USAID has indicated it will  support and what the efforts it will not cover. “Reconstruction” of destroyed dwellings, for example, was apparently deemed a a no-no; on the other hand, “renovation” might be OK.

Meantime, the clock of desperation is still ticking loudly for the refugees, huddled in tents in Kurdistan or trying, as thousands of Christianas are doing, to move back into blasted dwellings in Iraq’s Ninevah province. Some of the returnees have had to flee again  hurriedly as Kurdish minority forces and Iraqi government troops opened up new hostilities.

In many cases, refugee numbers, especially among Ninevah’s minority Christian populations, are continuing to dwindle fast. Without  the kind of resettlement help foreign governments can bring, and despite the efforts of private humanitarian groups, they face the devastating  prospect of finally leaving a region of the Middle East  they have inhabited for 2,000 years.

“These people are disappearing,” said Steve Rasche, legal counsel and resettlement director for the Caldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil, in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. “ They are giving up, fleeing the country. That is why the U.S. taking a real action step makes such a difference.”

Rasche has been an insistent critic of U.S. inaction, especially during the Obama Administration,  in failing to aid  the long-suffering Christian and other minorities in northern Iraq, even after former Secretary of State John Kerry declared in March 2016 that the devastation unleashed on them by ISIS constituted “genocide.”  Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has repeated that designation.

Critics have accused the Obama Administration in particular, before and after the Kerry  declaration,  of doing little or nothing to help the oppressed religious and ethnic minority peoples, persisting in a “blind” aid approach that somehow never got assistance to those whose cultural and historical enclaves for millennia were being erased.

The same “blind” aid policy, which claims to make no distinctions based on religion or ethnicity, was espoused by the U.N., where more than $1.4 billion in aid was channeled by the Obama White House for refugee protection and development  assistance Iraq. Critics have charged that virtually none of the reconstruction aid got to the minority refugees, who shunned U.N. refugee camps due to fears of violent persecution by their largely Muslim inhabitants. 

(In response to Pence’s October 25 remarks, a spokesperson for U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres reiterated that U.N. “humanitarian assistance in Iraq, as in other contexts, is provided in an impartial manner on the basis of greatest need. The U.N. system maintains that humanitarian work will continue to provide assistance in Iraq on this basis.”)

The criticism did not end with the arrival of Donald Trump, even though the tenor of sympathy in the new Administration was markedly different.

At a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing on October 3, Rasche reported that  “we have still yet to receive any form of meaningful aid from the U.S. Government,” and that while “political appointees [were] much more willing to help us since January…even after the better part of a year, they have been unable to move the bureaucracy to take meaningful action.”

At the same hearing, former Congressman Frank Wolf, a  longtime Republican representative from Virginia, reported after a trip to the battered area, that if “bold action is not taken by the end of the year, I believe a tipping point will be reached and we will see the end of Christianity in Iraq in a few short years and a loss of religious and ethnic diversity throughout the region.”

Vice President Pence’s widely-reported Octobdr 25 speech before an array of Middle Eastern religious leaders and their supporters was intended as a game-changer for that prediction.  

Pence  accused the U.N.  of “too often” failing to help the most vulnerable, “especially religious minorities,” and  promised that the U.S. “will work hand-in-hand from this day forward with faith-based groups and private organizations to help those who are persecuted for their faith.”  He also vowed to visit the region in December—a signal that the new arrangements had better be put in place quickly.

But will they?

In fact, a Trump Administration initiative intended to put flesh on Pence’s declaration was unveiled on October 30—just five days after the Vice President speech, which in bureaucratic terms was warp speed.  

The framework of the initiative was given an initial airing that same day at a meeting of about 30 representatives of U.S. government agencies and civilian humanitarian and human rights groups that have focused on the disastrous minority plight.

But then bureaucratic complications apparently took over once again.

The new program announcement took the form of an  opaque and wordy  invitation from USAID to “organizations and companies” to “co-create, co-design, co-invest, and collaborate in the research, development, piloting, and testing of innovative, practical, cost-effective, and scalable interventions” to help displaced populations return to their homes, and help others remain there. 

The long string of exploratory  stages hardly underscored the idea of emergency action.

An accompanying USAID  “Broad Agency Announcement” made explicit mention of “ethnic and religious groups from Christian, Yazidi, Assyrian, Turkmen, and mixed-minority towns” --and then bureaucratic process took over again.

An 8-page attachment to the Announcement on USAID’s website explained that new rules of “co-creation” would allow humanitarian non-government organizations to partner with USAID to “write and/or revise” a “Concept Paper” for presentation to the agency’s Peer and Scientific Review Board. The deadline for initial responses to the Announcement is November 30.

A USAID spokesperson told Fox News that the next stage of the process would be a “co-creativity workshop” on the assembled proposals, which would likely take place in January.

According to the 8-page document,  a designated USAID Contracting/Agreement Officer would designate the “Apparently Successful Partner” to work on management, control and design needs of a project before agreeing on its “shared resourcing,”  which might include no U.S. government money at all. 

Nothing in the announcement indicated that any funding will be taken from the U.N., as Pence originally declared, either.

CLICK HERE FOR THE BROAD AGENCY ANNOUNCEMENT.

The time line indicates  that even with USAID’s bureaucracy in overdrive, getting actual projects out the door is unlikely before February  at the earliest, and likely later—amid the dead of winter. A USAID spokesperson said the agency “could not speculate on when these would be implemented,” beyond assuring that the USAID intended to “move forward quickly.”

Under those circumstances, Vice President Pence’s December trip might prove to be ill-timed to  drive effective results, regardless of his intentions.

The  USAID spokesperson assured Fox News that the new process “is in addition to the ongoing stabilization work that is already being done on the Nineva plain in Iraq.”

He continued that USAID experts are  “working with humanitarian partners on the ground”—meaning the U.N. agencies that humanitarian NGOs have strongly complained about—to “prepare for winter and help ensure assistance reaches communities in need.” 

He also noted blandly that the U.S. “is deeply committed to helping the Government of Iraq rebuild; including helping Iraqis preserve their cultural and religious diversity.”

At least some of the non-government attendees at the unveiling meeting found the big picture presentation bereft of other important details, including the effective distinction between forbidden “reconstruction” and allowable “renovation.

“There was some head-scratching about resettling refugees in town that are in rubble, without engaging in the reconstruction of buildings,” Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Studies at the conservative Hudson Institute, told Fox News. Moreover, in a still unstable situation where new Kurdish-Iraqi rivalries could replace the fratricide of ISIS, “new hurdles are arising all the time,” she said.

 By the end of the meeting the  question of overall Administration coordination of the initiative also seemed to be a puzzle.

The person designated  for that role is Garry Hall, senior director for international organizations and alliances at the National Security Council.

Hall  is also charged with coordinating all U.S. government agencies working on religious freedom, human rights and the support of fragile democracies world wide, which one attendee described as “a huge portfolio,“ which would “prevent him from bird-dogging the actual implementation of minority resettlement in Ninevah.

“If it is serious,” the Hudson Institute’s  Shea argues, “the Administration should appoint an inter-agency coordinator devoted to this over the next critical six months.”

One legislator, Republican Chris Smith of New Jersey, has been pushing for a harder approach backed by legislation to force the issue.

Coauthor with California Rep Anna Eshoo of California of the bipartisan Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act of 2017,  Smith wants to see the law explicitly support, among other things, the transfer of U.S. government funds to faith-based and other groups carrying out humanitarian relief  and reconstruction work among the beleaguered minorities in both Iraq and Syria., as well as hold accountable those committing genocide.

 The bill has passed in the House, and gotten approval in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but has not been brought to a vote in the full Senate.

“It’s disturbing that we have found reasons not to be helpful,” Smith told Fox News. What Vice President Pence has urged, he says, “needs to be undergirded with law to make it sustainable.”

EDITOR'S NOTE:  The day after this story was published, Alyssa Farah, press secretary to Vice President Pence, declared in a statement to Fox News, "Assisting those who have been persecuted because of their faith is an urgent priority for this Administration.  The Vice President is fully committed to implementing this directive to ensure U.S. government aid reaches the persecuted in a timely and effective manner."

George Russell is editor-at-large of Fox News and can be found on Twitter: @GeorgeRussell or on Facebook.com/GeorgeRussell