The Trump administration has decided to steer humanitarian aid funding to Christian and other minority communities in Iraq, against the advice of some officials at the State Department and others at the United Nations, who initially feared the move could backfire.
The administration, prompted in part by Vice President Mike Pence’s strong links to Christian advocacy groups, recently clashed with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) over how to spend aid funds in Iraq, insisting more resources be channeled to Christian communities and other minority groups in the Nineveh Plains. The administration rejected UNDP’s assessment — and that of some officials at the State Department — that the aid should be focused on more populated areas around the war-damaged city of Mosul.
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In the end, the two sides struck a compromise. A portion of UNDP funds will be redirected away from Mosul and other areas where U.N. and U.S. officials feared the Islamic State might return and transferred to villages in the Nineveh Plains, home to Christian and other minority groups.
“In counterterrorism terms, there’s no question — Mosul is the highest priority. Many of us are worried that violent extremism could emerge again in the city if the areas that have been destroyed aren’t stabilized as quickly as possible,” a senior Western official told Foreign Policy. “If this happens, the military gains that have been won by the Iraqis and coalition are at risk — in fact, they could be lost altogether.”
(Map designed by C.K. Hickey. Source: Dr. Michael Izady, Columbia University)
Even before the recent disagreement with UNDP, proposed aid for religious minorities had sparked a fractious debate inside the administration. Some State Department officials, and others at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), disagreed with the administration’s initial approach, fearing that an increasingly direct and public emphasis on religious minorities, and Christians in particular, could fuel sectarian divisions in the country and single out already at-risk communities.
Since Donald Trump entered office a year ago, the issue has gotten high-level attention. Vice President Pence has spoken frequently about the importance of direct U.S. support for religious minorities in the Middle East, and current USAID Administrator Mark Green — long an advocate for minority communities — has made these efforts a centerpiece of his tenure.
U.S. leaders have also increasingly targeted the United Nations for specific criticism. Last October for instance, at an event organized by the advocacy group In Defense of Christians, Pence announced that the State Department would no longer fund “ineffective” U.N. relief efforts and would instead funnel aid directly through USAID.
“Christianity is under unprecedented assault in those ancient lands,” Pence said. “While faith-based groups with proven track records and deep roots in these communities are more than willing to assist, the United Nations too often denies their funding requests.”
Shortly afterward, USAID unveiled plans to provide additional aid to minority communities in northern Iraq over and above the funds committed to the United Nations. This separate effort calls for up to $35 million in assistance for minority communities in the Nineveh Plains, as well as an additional $20 million in humanitarian and other funds from the State Department.
The issue pits the Trump administration’s desire to take more assertive action to safeguard Christian communities in the Middle East against its broader goal of bolstering stability in Iraq after the defeat of the Islamic State. If the policy backfires, current and former officials say, it could undercut Washington’s already limited influence in Baghdad at a time when it is keen to counter Iran’s role in the region.
“Christians make up a tiny percentage of the population, and if they get a disproportionate percentage of aid, that’s going to look bad,” said Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA officer focused on Iraq and currently a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “It looks like the U.S. isn’t committed to the general rebuilding and stabilization of Iraq. It will look like it’s more committed to its own special interests.”
The administration’s feud with aid officials over the past two months centered on a proposed tranche of $150 million in stabilization funding for the UNDP in Iraq. Originally designated as a blank check to be spent as the agency saw fit, U.S. officials intervened to renegotiate the terms, eventually settling on a deal that forced $55 million to be used explicitly for minority religious communities. A second tranche of $75 million would then be contingent on new monitoring and evaluation measures.
The move raised eyebrows throughout the aid community. “Taking $55 million and putting it into an area where there’s no chance that the Islamic State is going to come back doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” the Western official said. With stabilization funding — designed to address the potential resurgence of the Islamic State — “what you want to do is focus on the areas where they might come back,” the official told FP.
Others within the administration and some members of Congress, however, argued that Christian and Yazidi communities in the country faced an existential threat that the United States had a responsibility to address. The Christian population in Iraq has dwindled dramatically, from an estimated 1.4 million people before 2003 to fewer than 250,000 in 2016.
The Islamic State in particular singled out minorities for especially brutal treatment. The group’s fighters systematically expelled Christian communities from their territory in Iraq and massacred and enslaved thousands of Yazidis — a small community based in northern Iraq and Syria whose faith is a mix of Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Islam. Activists and human rights monitors described the campaign as genocidal.
“These communities were hit the hardest,” said Philippe Nassif, the executive director of In Defense of Christians. “[The Islamic State] didn’t just kill people — they dug up olive groves and removed the roots of the trees. They wanted to wipe out any presence of Yazidis and Christian communities so people couldn’t come back.”
GOP congressional leaders and White House officials eventually grew frustrated at what they considered to be a slow and insufficient response from diplomats and aid workers, despite the Trump administration’s publicly stated goal of helping Christians and minorities on the ground. Some Republicans on Capitol Hill came to believe that, barring a direct legislative effort from Congress, the State Department and USAID would refuse to change course. “I would say in the past year or so, the pressure has increased further,” said Sarhang Hamasaeed, the Middle East program director at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “There are direct questions about how to show in measurable terms what specifically has been done for minorities.”
Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), for instance, introduced the Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act of 2017. The bill, which passed the House but eventually stalled in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was designed essentially to remind agencies of their legal authority to designate aid for “ethnic and minority individuals and communities with the greatest need” in Iraq and Syria.
Smith and like-minded lawmakers have pushed the issue heavily in Congress. “This has been a steady drum beat with this crowd,” said a Democratic congressional aide.
For their part, former aid officials say there are no statutes or regulations barring agencies from funding religious groups, as long as aid is not used to proselytize or discriminate based on faith. “USAID has been dealing with faith-based groups for a while — it couldn’t do its work without them,” a former senior USAID official told FP.
After months of combat in Iraq that razed towns and displaced millions of people, Washington’s aid effort is designed to cover a wide range of needs among civilians and is not focused on only one community, said Thomas Staal, a counselor at USAID. “What we’re seeing is that there is a need for a holistic approach.”
Nevertheless, Staal, who traveled to Iraq in December, acknowledged that Christian communities had expressed concern about preferential aid policies. “A significant amount [of aid] is going to Nineveh but not all of it,” he told FP. “If the U.S. focuses all their assistance on Christians, that puts a target on their back.”
Despite the strident rhetoric from Pence and some lawmakers, in the end the administration’s approach does not represent a radical departure for humanitarian aid programs, said Jeremy Konyndyk of the Center for Global Development, who worked as director of USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance under the Barack Obama administration.
“There’s not an indication that it’s compromising program integrity in some way,” Konyndyk said. “It’s not setting off red lights for me.”
Still, a perception that America is favoring one religious community over another could antagonize the Iraqi government and further damage U.S. credibility, former officials said.
“We best serve our own interests and Iraq’s interests when we don’t engage in accentuating sectarian divisions,” said Jon Alterman, a former State Department official and now director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Alterman said he was not privy to the details of the aid program, but the approach could carry risks. “Explicitly supporting Christian communities in Iraq because they are Christian would accentuate those divisions,” he said.