When U.S. Vice President Michael Pence said Wednesday that President Donald Trump has ordered the U.S. government to bypass UN programs to assist Christian victims of ISIS genocide in Iraq and Syria, directly funding local church groups instead, it was music to the ears of both Middle Eastern bishops and private Western groups, many Catholic, who have been striving mightily to help them.
All across the Middle East, Christians forced to flee by ISIS don’t take shelter in large-scale camps run by the UN or UN-backed NGOs where aid is typically delivered, fearing that Islamic militants could strike them there too. Moreover, there’s a basic “trust deficit” about living with Muslims in such close proximity, after many Christians watched their Muslim neighbors in Syria and Iraq loot their homes and stores, or even lash out at them physically, once the fighting started.
As a result, most displaced Christians are entirely dependent upon the Church.
My Crux colleague Inés San Martín and I were recently in Zahlé, Lebanon, one of that country’s most robustly Christian cities, where we saw first-hand what life is like for Syrian Christian refugees.
They live in tiny, bare-bones apartments subsidized by the Greek Melkite archdiocese, they eat at a soup kitchen run by the archdiocese, their children’s tuition at Catholic schools is covered by the archdiocese, and they get medical treatment at Church-run facilities. When they run short of cash for medicine, clothing and other basic necessities, it’s a social worker from the archdiocese to whom they turn.
If public humanitarian aid doesn’t flow through those local churches, therefore, it’s simply not reaching a good share of the people for whom it’s intended.
In that light, a longtime expert on anti-Christian persecution told me in the wake of Pence’s pledge, which came at a dinner sponsored by “In Defense of Christians,” that it’s “by far the most positive thing this administration has said” in terms of its capacity to make a real difference.
However, he added a dose of caution that anyone familiar with the situation undoubtedly shares.
“It sounded great,” he said. “The question is, will it actually happen?”
The point is not merely that the Trump administration has a history of making bold statements and then not always following through, but also that vulnerable Christians in the Middle East don’t have six to ten months to wait for a new policy to kick in – they need help now, as in, right now.
In places such as Kurdistan, Jordan, and Lebanon, as well as safe zones within Iraq and Syria, the capacity of local churches to respond has been stretched to the breaking point and beyond, and international groups such as the Knights of Columbus, Aid to the Church in Need and the Catholic Near East Welfare Association also are at the limits of how much more they can do.
Now, we’re on the cusp of winter across much of the Middle East, when temperatures turn colder, the costs of heating fuel go up, and opportunities for day labor on outdoor construction sites diminish.
San Martín and I spoke to one mother of three from a destroyed village outside Aleppo in Syria now living with her three children in Zahlé who said that during the winter, her fuel bill basically doubles, and she has no idea this year how she’s going to pay for it. Another mother of a Christian family in a village in northern Lebanon near the Syrian border said the same thing, adding that she’s been getting by on occasional hand-outs from her neighbors, but now the entire village is tapped.
The hard reality is that without new sources of support soon, some share of the Middle East’s Christian refugees and displaced persons will not survive the next six months.
Certainly, the firmness of Pence’s declaration on Wednesday, combined with other recent signals from the administration, suggest they’re in earnest about doing something. So, what would rapid response look like?
Many experts say two immediate steps are required.
- First, the White House needs to issue a detailed memorandum spelling out precisely what the new policy of funding church groups directly means, to leave no room for misinterpretation. Based on church/state concerns and other issues, such a step is often a stretch for the federal bureaucracy, and this isn’t a case in which institutional inertia or ambivalence can be allowed to take hold.
- Second, the White House needs to create a new “Interagency Coordinator” position for relief efforts on behalf of genocide victims in Iraq and Syria, someone who can bring together the necessary players to jar loose the allocated funds, make sure they actually reach intended beneficiaries, and help ensure the services they’re supposed to fund are actually provided.
If those two steps are taken swiftly, meaning within the next few days, experts say, then we’ll know this is for real.
In other walks of life, it’s often said that “speed kills.” When it comes to persecuted Christians in the Middle East, however, speed isn’t the enemy, but rather dithering, division and delay – all qualities in which Washington typically abounds.
We’ll see if this time, against all odds, those tendencies are sufficiently constrained to make a difference.