Months after Pence promise, Iraqi Christians say they are 'worse off'

Seven months after Vice President Pence vowed to stop funding “ineffective” United Nations-led recovery efforts in northern Iraq and provide U.S. support directly to persecuted Christians and other minorities who suffered ISIS-directed genocide, and are now struggling to reclaim their homes, much of the promised additional U.S. support has not appeared.

Although the beneficiaries have not yet been named, some of the most direly afflicted Christian groups, embedded in the region for nearly two millenia, say they have already been told by USAID that projects they submitted for financing have been vetoed, without explanation.

Many of the Christian churches in the Nineveh Plain in Northern Iraq were defaced or completely decimated by ISIS.

Many of the Christian churches in the Nineveh Plain in Northern Iraq were defaced or completely decimated by ISIS. (Courtesy Knights of Colombus)

The rejected proposals were aimed at providing jobs and economic security, and also the means of cultural survival, for the ancient communities, whose numbers are eroding as the lack of assistance forces them to leave Iraq in order to survive.

Meantime, private-sector donations that the Christian organizations had previously relied on have apparently dried up, as donors assumed U.S. assistance would be quickly forthcoming.

As Archbishop Bashar Warda, head of the Chaldean Catholic Church in the northerly, Kurdish area of Erbil, told Fox News:  “We are left with still many thousands of families to care for and services to provide, and not a penny with which to do it.  In this sense, we are worse off now than we were two years ago.”

“The only support for these displaced people comes from the church, and now it seems everyone is turning away from us.”

Christianity is edgi closer to extinction in Iraq, where many ancient documents and artifacts have been destroyed or defaced.

Christianity is edgi closer to extinction in Iraq, where many ancient documents and artifacts have been destroyed or defaced. (The Associated Press)

Archbishop Warda’s church relief organization has often been the sole pillar of support for some 60,000 brutalized Christians—in a region that once held upwards of one million—who fled waves of murder, rape, displacement and plunder inflicted by ISIS, and the ensuing war to dislodge the Islamic extremists.

His new cries of dismay are a pointed reminder that political promises, even those of a vice president, are subsequently filtered through stodgy and often recalcitrant layers of bureaucracy.

These have the final say, despite assurances in January from the White House and USAID, two months after Pence’s initial avowal, that assistance would speedily be focused on Iraq’s battered and deprived minorities, including through newly reprogrammed and highly supervised efforts by the U.N.

The continued reliance on the U.N., which already contradicted Pence’s initial promise, was seen months ago by U.S. officials as a necessary compromise:  U.N. organizations, already on the ground in Iraq, were still believed to be the fastest and most efficient way to deliver aid to the minorities that had been, as one USAID official delicately put it, “overlooked” previously, mostly by the U.N. itself.

In fact, numerous exposes have documented U.N. neglect was far more widespread than accidental, ostensibly the outcome of high-minded aid policies that claimed to be uninfluenced by religious status or minority identity—exactly the characteristics, in other words, of those most savagely repressed by ISIS.

Due in part to extensive U.N. collaboration with Iraqi government officials and other majority-Muslim interest groups, U.N. reconstruction efforts almost entirely favored a majority of returning Muslims who had fled the same conflicts, and Christian properties were often handed over to their majority neighbors.

Christians fear their future in Iraq as funding dries up and promises fall short

Christians fear their future in Iraq as funding dries up and promises fall short (Fox News/Hollie McKay)

One of the rejected proposals from Archbishop Warda’s Catholic University of Erbil, jointly submitted with an organization of Iraq’s equally persecuted non-Christian Yazidi minority, specifically called for the creation of “a property rights program to protect minority…property rights against illegal seizures in the post-ISIS period.”

All that was supposed to change in the renegotiated deal with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), which has been the lead actor on most of the international reconstruction work. About $75 million in U.S.-provided “stabilization” funding was to be refocused on areas that were ancient homelands for hundreds of thousands of Christians, as well as the Yazidis, who were equally hated by ISIS.

Most of that money was still focused on infrastructure projects that would benefit persecuted minorities and their Muslim neighbors equally, as their battered communities are rebuilt. But more communities in previously Christian areas were targeted. Additional monitors and auditors were added to the plans ensure that the stronger focus on those persecuted would remain in place.

Under the deal, another $75 million was allocated as follow-up spending, to be released once UNDP’s initial efforts were deemed to be on target.

The reformed U.N. efforts are underway—but so is the evaluation.

“We are still assessing,” a senior USAID official told Fox News.  “We want to make sure the efforts are ongoing. We are getting them [UNDP] to take a look at every single activity. There will be a decision in the next month or so.”

IRAQI CHRISTIAN HITS POPE’S 'SUBMISSIVE' POLICY ON TOLERANCE FOR ISLAM, OTHER RELIGIONS

UNDER THREAT? IRAN'S QUIET INFILTRATION OVER IRAQI CHRISTIAN COMMUNITIES

A church hall in the Christian village of Barzani, outside of Mosul, used by ISIS as target practice

A church hall in the Christian village of Barzani, outside of Mosul, used by ISIS as target practice (FOX News/Hollie McKay)

That may be no time at all in Washington, but can easily be a lifetime in the poverty-stricken and ravaged Iraqi territories.

An even bigger cause of concern among the beleaguered minorities is some $35 million in fresh funds that bypasses the U.N., through an allegedly innovative USAID mechanism known as the Broad Agency Announcement, or BAA.

The blandly named initiative is intended to give the victims more input in a speeded-up relief effort—and, the victims of genocide thought, more direct influence on how the resulting money was awarded.

Five months after USAID officials announced the BAA’s use in northern Iraq, the outcome of the much-advertised innovation is still grinding along in the bowels of USAID bureaucracy—except for those proposals that already have been summarily rejected.

Specific financial awards under the BAA will likely be formalized “in the next couple of months,” according to a senior USAID official—who added:  “We are very eager to get this done.”

Maybe. To call the BAA a simple and decisive tool for cutting through and red tape would be very misleading.

Nor is it quite a novelty. According to officials in non-government humanitarian officials consulted by Fox News, the BAA, a consultative mechanism that indeed bypasses normal USAID procurement bureaucracy, has been in use at the agency for at least five years, and is now being used with increasing frequency.

Christian leader Father Afram looks out at his once vibrant Christian town of Bahzani, Iraq outside of Mosul.

Christian leader Father Afram looks out at his once vibrant Christian town of Bahzani, Iraq outside of Mosul. (Hollie McKay)

Its virtues include the fact that it invites organizations of all kinds to present their best proposals for solving specific problems without a lengthy preliminary assessment by USAID, which can adopt the proposals a la carte if they seem promising.

In the case of northern Iraq, this was done at a special “co-creation” meeting held in March in Baghdad, to which Christian and minority groups, including Archbishop Warda’s relief organization, was invited.

So were, among others, the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration (IOM), the U.S. government-funded United States Institute for Peace, and Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the globe-spanning Catholic relief organization. Two staffers from Pence’s staff also attended the session.

Under BAA rules, USAID can “encourage” organizations to form coalitions—which by their nature are likely to favor bigger international organizations, with substantial resources to cover elaborate U.S. funding requirements for extensive accounting and oversight.

The drawbacks of the BAA include the fact USAID can adopt its favorite proposals without giving any money or a contract to the organization that came up with the well-received notion.

“You literally are giving away your best ideas,” one U.S. development expert who is familiar with the BAA process told Fox News. “To make matters worse, they don’t give a debrief to tell you what went wrong. You can’t improve an idea for the future.”

“I have heard nightmare stories where they have had workshops, and USAID has taken ideas and given them to another implementer,” the expert said.

Bill O’Keefe, CRS vice president for government outreach and advocacy, told Fox News his organization’s proposals had been “green-lighted” for further consideration in the BAA, and called the process “really competitive”

“It’s not surprising that many groups are not getting funded,” he said. “It happens to us all the time.”  With total annual revenues last year of nearly $1 billion, however, CRS can clearly roll with many punches.

As Archbishop Warda’s church discovered, along with offering no reasons for a veto, the BAA methodology does not include nor grounds for appeal.

Moreover, even top officials at USAID are not necessarily privy to how BAA proposals are finally analyzed and judged. Those decisions are made at the level of USAID missions abroad—in this case, Fox News was told by a source briefed on some of the details, a five person group in Baghdad selected by the USAID head of mission.

Long terrorized by ISIS fanatics, their injustices ignored by local governments and ignored for years by  ostensibly neutral, U.N.-managed relief efforts, it is perhaps unsurprising that  those championing Iraq’s barely-surviving minorities could see something sinister in the dashing of their hopes for U.S. support.

As Archbishop Warda told Fox News, “It is very clear to us that many people within the [U.S.] government are opposed to this.”

That accusation drew a stiff rejoinder from the White House, where an official told Fox News “we believe the administration is making a difference in aiding and resettling victims of religious persecution in Iraq. Tens of millions of dollars have been directed at the crisis, including 150 specific projects in the Ninewa Plain [a Christian heartland] identified by the U.S. and our partners, including faith-based NGOs.”

“We hope that the initiatives will be judged by results and positive impact on these vulnerable populations—not by what organizations are awarded the money.”

In context, however, the millions of dollars and multiple projects mentioned by the official were the money committed so far under the reformed UNDP initiative—which is still being evaluated.

As for UNDP, a spokesperson told Fox News “new projects are being added to the pipeline every week” in minorities communities—as of late May, 415 in all, with half completed, “covering areas like health, water, electricity, housing and education.”

“In some minority areas,” the spokesperson added,  “priorities have involved discussion with religious leaders and UNDP works closely with them to ensure these are met.

The spokesperson reeled off a list of 10 towns in areas that have significant Christian populations where projects were “prioritized by community leaders”— not necessary religious leaders - as well as “increased activities” in historically-Yazidi areas.

A source deeply familiar with conditions in the minority communities, however, told Fox News the quality and outcome of the projects, completed or not, varies at best.

Moreover, the source alleged, “the work is all being done by Kurdish or Arab Muslim contractors for USAID/UNDP.  Christians are not involved in either the work, or the planning of the work orders.  The quality of the work is poor since those doing the work have no interest in the communities themselves.”

In one center specifically cited by the UNDP spokesperson for its restoration work, Batnaya — formerly an overwhelmingly Christian enclave north of the re-conquered ISIS stronghold in Mosul — a local source related that a small group of Christians starting to return to the town were forced to flee again by hostile Iraqi government forces and local militias.

According to that source, the Christians now believe Batnaya is being repaired so it can be inhabited by Muslims from Mosul who are still homeless.

According to Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the conservative Hudson Institute, the murkiness of the USAID process and the frustration felt by Iraqi Christians and minorities point to the need for an inter-agency “genocide aid coordinator” to handle the issue more decisively, something she has long advocated.

Such a coordinator “could have taken into account all the complexities, gathered pertinent information, kept principals apprised and parried the obstacles to keep the reform policy on track.” Without one, Shea fears, “there simply is no hope.”

Or at least, not much. Christian concerns, as well as those of other persecuted minorities, will get a wider audience at a June 14 hearing of a subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, chaired by Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ).

Smith is the author and longtime supporter of a bill that would specifically support the transfer of U.S. government funds to faith-based and other groups doing humanitarian relief and reconstruction work in both Iraq and Syria. The bill has passed the House and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but has never reached the Senate floor.

“Generally speaking, the presumption has been that if an indigenous entity wanted to use USAID money directly, it was not able to do the work and requisite accounting and reporting to our standards,” Smith told Fox News. It’s an attitude that he think’s Pence’s initial promise was intended to change.

“But the policy is seen [by bureaucrats] as being political. Which means they are more or less ignoring the policy.”

Concurs Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee:  “If the United States does not step up to help these Christians then who will?”

Both USAID and administration officials have told Archbishop Warda’s clients, in effect, to try again next time.

Said a White House official:  “The Administration has not defined or declared an end to assisting victims of persecution in Iraq.”

The U.S. government, however, may have more time available that the victims.

Historically speaking, notes Philip Jenkins, a world-renowned authority on the early history of Christianity who teaches at Baylor University, the collapse of Christianity in Iraq and even more so in neighboring Syria is “a catastrophe” that mirrors the earlier disappearance of far-flung Jewish populations from the region.

Jenkins passed on a grim Jewish observation about the fate of the two religions in the region: “after Saturday comes Sunday.”

Meaning: after the disappearance of far-flung Jewish communities across the Middle East, the Christian minorities will be next.

The question may be whether the U.S. wants to continue to attempt a rebuttal.