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U.S. should aid religious minorities abroad directly, without going through the UN

The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy Report unveiled this week makes it a priority to “protect religious freedom and religious minorities” abroad

Nina Shea
Nina Shea
Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Religious Freedom

The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy Report unveiled this week makes it a priority to “protect religious freedom and religious minorities” abroad. This is an integral part of the new U.S. strategy to champion American values around the world.

To make this happen, the administration should start by ending the United Nations’ role as middleman for distributing U.S. aid to the world’s needy. In the Middle East, U.N.-administered aid programs that undermine American values are working to drive out threatened Christians and Yazidi minorities.

Christmas Day will mark two months since Vice President Mike Pence declared that beleaguered Middle East Christians and other religious minorities have been sidelined in U.N. aid programs. The vice president said that “help is on the way.”

To assist religious minority communities, which are in a desperate struggle to recover from an ISIS genocide started three years ago, U.S. aid dollars were to be immediately shifted out of “ineffective” U.N. programs and provided directly to the victims, Pence said,

But so far, this hasn’t happened. Despite the dire urgency, it seems that slow-walking U.S. aid bureaucrats prefer U.N. priorities.

The United States continues sending most of the $2 billion in aid we give to Iraqis – including some meant for these horrendously battered minorities – through the U.N.

As Pence noted: “The believers in Nineveh Iraq have had less than 2 percent of their housing needs addressed and the majority of Christians and Yazidis remain in shelters.”

A relatively small amount of U.S. direct aid for rebuilding these minorities’ homes is supposedly already in the pipeline, but no details are public.

Stephen Rasche, the lawyer representing the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee – the association of unified local churches that care for the displaced Christians – tells me that “we hope that meaningful aid will arrive soon.” He gave similar testimony before Congress in October.

Meantime, the U.N. continues to prioritize the resettlement of Muslims – even ISIS families. Over 1 million Iraqi Muslims have been resettled over the last year with U.N. help.

Christians must relay for their resettlement on the Knights of Columbus and a patchwork of other private charities. Only 30,000 Christians – or less than a quarter of the Christian community –has been resettled.

Consider the case of Rita Habib Ayyoub, a 30-year-old Iraqi Christian woman.

Ayyoub is one of hundreds, possibly thousands, of Christians and several thousand Yazidis captured in Iraq’s Nineveh province. She was forced to become a Muslim and a sex slave. Iraqi lawyers documented 68 Christians still in ISIS captivity in August.

Ayyoub told journalists that she was taken to a slave market in Mosul and sold, along with three Christian children, to ISIS “emirs.” A local Sunni man bought her and a 14- year old Yazidi girl. “He raped the both of us over and over again,” she says.

Ayyoub says she was later resold in Raqqa to another jihadi who had a Moroccan wife. Ayyoub relates her horrific ordeal in that family: “I was beaten and tortured by her (the jihadi’s wife) every day. She would not give up until I was bleeding, from my head, for example. They made me read the Quran and threatened to kill me if I did not convert to Islam.”

Ayyoub was rescued by Syrian Democratic Forces in November and is now being aided in Syria by a small women’s group of Assyrians (a traditionally Christian ethnicity) – not by the U.N.

Assyrian Swedish journalist Nuro Kino, who is helping Ayyoub, tells me that she does not know where to go next. Ayyoub’s hometown of Qaraqosh, Iraq’s largest Christian city, stands mostly empty.

Conceivably, Ayyoub could end up in the Erbil Catholic Chaldean Archdiocese’s displacement center, which shelters most displaced Iraqi Christians and has not had U.N. support.

There she would find Christina Abada, a 6-year-old from Qaraqosh. Christina was snatched from her mother’s lap and sold on the slave market at age 3. Rescued last June, she and her family have no means to rebuild.

But while Ayyoub may not be able to access U.N. aid, her ISIS tormentors can, thanks in part to generous U.S.-taxpayer-supported U.N. “stabilization” aid.

Though Ayyoub’s enslaver is likely dead, his radicalized Moroccan wife might also qualify for U.N. resettlement help in Telkayf. That Nineveh town was Christian until the U.N. decided to move in the families of ISIS jihadis killed in battle and, thus, effectively bar its Christians’ return.

A Washington Post expose on ISIS families quotes a Moroccan widow vowing: “Our children will one day get (the caliphate) back.” Another says that she wanted both her children to grow up to be martyrs in jihad.

The U.N. justifies this travesty by rebranding basic aid programs as “stabilization” and “counterterrorism.” Of course, needy Muslims should be aided and counterterrorism is crucial. But this reclassification of housing, water and power aid virtually ensures that the peaceful Christians and Yazidis are last in line. Unlike the U.S. National Security Strategy report, the U.N. seems to blame Islamist terror on poverty, not ideology,

In addition, half-vacant Christian towns, like Bartella, are being colonized with schools, mosques and libraries built by Iran, which seeks to control a corridor through Nineveh into Syria.

Recently, 800,000 people petitioned the U.N. to help Iraqi Christians, but the U.N. is accountable to no one. Moreover, the UNHCR, the U.N. refugee aid agency, failed multiple internal U.N. audits, as reported in 2016. Then-UNHCR director Antonio Guterres is now U.N. secretary general.

With this track record, how can we entrust the U.N. with billions of dollars for important programs involving core American values that are U.S. strategic security priorities?

Vice President Pence’s important promise to bypass U.N. aid programs, which he repeated twice on Twitter, would both help save persecuted minorities and honor the National Security Strategy. The administration now needs to implement that promise – in Iraq and worldwide.