While the U.S. government spends $32 million to assist Myanmar’s persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority, it has shown a curious lack of commitment toward Christians who fled the Islamic State invasion of Iraq, according to critics.
Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, raised the issue in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last week. She told LifeZette that the State Department has spent very little of the $1.4 billion of humanitarian aid authorized by Congress since fiscal year 2014 on the Christian and Yazidi communities of Iraq.
Under the administration of former President Barack Obama, the United States channeled most of its assistance through the United Nations refugee and development agencies. President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have continued that policy, Shea said.
“This is really astonishing because Secretary Tillerson has confirmed that these refugees face genocide,” Shea said.
A State Department spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Shea said close to $250 million has been earmarked for large reconstruction projects, such as restoring water and power. But she said a local church in Iraq told her that only two projects out of about 1,100 in Iraq have been in areas previously dominated by the country’s Christian minority.
“I’m hearing from the local church that the projects are very minor,” she said, describing them as repairing a canopy on a public building and rebuilding one town’s “mayor’s house,” which she believes refers to city hall.
Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), James Lankford (R-Okla.), John Cornyn (R-Texas), and Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) complained to Tillerson over the summer that religious minorities who fled ISIS and were living in Erbil, Iraq, had been unable to access the $1.3 billion authorized by Congress. That authorization expires at the end of the fiscal year on Friday.
The Rev. Benedict Kiely, a Catholic priest who runs an organization dedicated to helping the persecuted Christians in the Middle East, said the United States should bypass the United Nations.
“Yes, the U.S. should aid them directly — the Christians in Iraq have received little or no help from the U.N.,” he told LifeZette via email. “They do not — and did not — go to U.N. camps. They felt unsafe because ISIS had infiltrated the camps. All the assistance has been coming from church organizations.”
Kiely added: “Basically the U.N. needs to use common sense, not political correctness — surely not a problem for the Trump administration?”
Shea said Iran, meanwhile, continues to pump large sums of cash into building up Muslim areas of the country.
Clare Lopez, vice president for research and analysis at the Washington-based Center for Security Policy, said she was puzzled by why the Trump administration has not reversed the Obama-era policy.
“It does seem odd that they haven’t spent money that’s been authorized,” she said.
Lopez said spending money to rebuild infrastructure and provide sufficient security to allow refugees to feel safe in their ancestral homeland is the most cost-effective way to address the refugee crisis in the Middle East. That goes especially for refugees of minority religions, Lopez said, but also applies to Muslims. If refugees can safely return home, it allows U.S. officials to avoid the thorny issue of resettling them in the United States, she said.
“There’s also very large principles involved even if the numbers are small. This is a strategic victory to have these populations eradicated.”
“If you actually talk to these people … they want to stay as close to home as they can,” she said.
Shea said Christian communities that have existed in Iraq since the time of Jesus are in danger of getting wiped out. She said they have missed out on aid from the United Nations because they are afraid to stay in U.N.-run camps populated by sometimes-hostile Muslims. Instead, it has largely been private charities like the Knights of Columbus that have assisted them.
Meanwhile, the United States quickly has spent $32 million to assist the Rohingya, who have streamed across the border into Bangladesh by the hundreds of thousands after the Myanmar army attacked their villages. Some have told stories of atrocities committed against civilians.
“It’s a stark contrast and a contradiction,” Shea said.
Stephen Rasche, general counsel of the Archdiocese of the Kurdish city of Erbil, said in a statement that the church supports efforts to help the Rohingya community.
“However, we remain deeply concerned that the American government has still directed little or no aid to the Christian community in Iraq despite its clear declaration that genocide was committed by ISIS against that Christian community,” he stated. “President Trump has promised to aid the victims of ISIS’ genocide, and Congress has placed a statutory obligation on the State Department and USAID to do so within FY 2017, which ends in just a few days.”
Shea noted that very few political appointees have been named by Trump and confirmed by the Senate.
“The policies are being made by Obama holdovers and foreign service [professionals] that are not Trump appointees,” she said.
She added: “The White House just hasn’t given instructions.”
Shea acknowledged that the number of Christians in Iraq is tiny. And they factor little in the broader effort to roll back ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
“There’s also very large principles involved even if the numbers are small,” she said. “This is a strategic victory to have these populations eradicated.”