The U.S. government is serious about global religious freedom and will back up its words with concrete actions.
That was the clear message President Trump delivered Sept. 23 in a United Nations speech on global religious freedom. Most notably, the president pledged increased support for efforts aimed at preventing persecution as well as protection of religious sites and relics.
And nowhere have such efforts been more necessary of late than in Iraq. Five years ago, ISIS terrorists had gained control of some 21,000 square miles of Iraqi territory. Their terrorizing, raping, pillaging and murdering sent Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities fleeing their homes in a struggle to survive. Many didn’t.
Through July, the federal government had spent some $380 million in helping displaced Iraqi Christians and Yazidis return to their cities and villages, and in rebuilding vital infrastructure. During his U.N. speech, Trump announced an additional $25 million toward the effort.
In one of the world’s great repositories of Biblical history and archaeology, where Daniel followed God into a lion’s den and Jonah preached repentance to the Ninevites, the Islamists leveled churches, ancient religious sites and priceless relics while holding some 4 million people captive to their reign of terror, filling a vacuum left following the U.S. military withdrawal in 2011.
The Christians in Iraq nearly vanished. Today they are slowly reemerging in their former region, as are the Yazidis, an ethnic minority that was also targeted by ISIS.
Michael Mulroy, the deputy assistant secretary for defense in the Middle East, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in July that ISIS during its zenith had brought in as much as $1 million a day to fund its attempt to establish a caliphate. But by late 2017, an American-led multinational force had pummeled ISIS strongholds and helped Iraq regain control of its provinces, though the damaged nation faces ongoing obstacles, including elimination of any last remnants of ISIS fighters.
As Christians and Yazidis struggle to return to their former towns and villages, there are challenges to basic infrastructure affecting homes, businesses and worship sites.
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is the federal entity working with the Iraqi people, joining with nongovernmental agencies—many of them faith-based—in coming alongside religious minorities to bring relief, a sense of normalcy and a hopeful future.
USAID Administrator Mark Green, a former GOP congressman from Wisconsin who also served as ambassador to Tanzania, told Decision in a phone interview that the recent U.S. emphasis on religious freedom has been driven by a president and vice president committed to the cause.
“They’ve made very clear that this is an important priority for the administration,” Green said. “In practical terms, what it has meant is listening to community leaders—typically faith leaders—in northern Iraq and asking them what it is that they need in order to roll back the evil shadow of ISIS.
“ISIS sought to wipe Christians, Yazidis and other minorities off the face of the earth. They really did seek to extinguish Christianity in that region. So defeating ISIS to me necessarily includes restoring some of that which they destroyed.”
Visiting northern Iraq, Green said he witnessed decimated churches, graves where ministers were tortured and killed and refugee camps filled with survivors who had lost everything.
The plea of one Yazidi mother who sought help finding her daughters who went missing during ISIS’ violent siege was especially striking, Green said.
“The pain that was on her face as she pleaded with me to find out what happened, you know, that shakes you to your core.”
Green said USAID’s work as part of the White House’s religious freedom initiatives is largely tangible: restoring water sources, electricity and providing sustainable economic opportunities so that families and businesses have something to come back to.
The goal, Green said, is that struggling populations develop to the point of sustaining themselves and becoming partners in helping other regions and cultures do the same—a very American way of viewing human dignity, he added, and not unrelated to religious freedom. In fact, Green argues that where freedom of religion and conscience are allowed, societies generally flourish—which should be a vital motivation in U.S. foreign policy.
To that end, all U.S. foreign service officers—as part of the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act—are now required to undergo training in international religious freedom and its relationship to American foreign policy and international affairs. USAID’s foreign service agents, for example, began the training this fall.
Two years ago this fall, Vice President Pence told a group dedicated to helping persecuted Christians, “The United States 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. This is the moment, now is the time, and America will support these people in their hour of need.”
The White House has kept its promise, adding demonstrable deeds to such lofty language. As a nation with exceptional ideals aims to help persecuted peoples, believers have a remarkable opportunity to do no less through their prayers.
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