WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan24) – State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert reaffirmed to reporters on Tuesday the US commitment to religious freedom, including the protection of religious minorities in Iraq, above all Christians and Yezidis, whose communities were decimated by the rampages of the Islamic State (IS).
Responding to a question from Kurdistan 24, Nauert explained that protecting religious minorities “is a big thing for this administration.”
“The Vice President has spoken about it numerous times,” she added.
Pence, indeed, has had a long-standing interest in Iraq’s minority religious communities.
In May 2017, Pence spoke to “The World Summit of Persecuted Christians,” organized by Reverend Franklin Graham. Graham’s charity, “Samaritan’s Purse” has been aiding Christian communities in Syria and Iraq for the past decade, while Graham, himself, is a frequent visitor to the Kurdistan Region and has hailed the Kurds as “true friends” of the US.
Speaking to the World Summit, Pence described his “first trip overseas and in that part of the world,” when, as a Congressman, he visited Basrah in 2004, shortly after the Bush administration had declared the end of major combat operations in Iraq.
“I saw the local imam,” Pence told his audience, and “as the local bishop arrived I saw the two of them embrace warmly.”
“I turned to the State Department official who was traveling with us” and asked, “How long has there been a Christian church in Basrah? He smiled and said, about 1,500 years.”
But fourteen years later, the situation has deteriorated sharply. As Pence, lamented, “At the hands of extremists, we’ve actually seen monasteries demolished, priests and monks beheaded, and the two-millennia-old Christian tradition in Mosul virtually extinguished overnight.”
As Graham told Kurdistan 24, “Christians have had to flee from all other areas of Iraq,” except for Kurdistan.
In December, Pence met with the Chaldean Archbishop of Erbil, Bashar Warda, who was visiting Washington. No one from the State Department met with him, however.
A further failure to address this issue—a priority for the White House—by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), led to a public rebuke from Pence’s office.
At Pence’s direction, the head of USAID, Mark Green, and Sam Brownback, who became Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom in January, visited the area to explore how the US could more effectively assist endangered religious minorities there.
On Monday, they saw Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani. According to a summary of their meeting posted on the official website of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), they discussed “the situation of minorities in the Nineveh Plan,” as well as the results of Iraq’s May 12 elections, the security situation, US assistance to displaced persons, and the development of KRG institutions.
The US delegation “commended” the KRG “and the people of the Kurdistan Region” for accommodating and assisting a “large number of Internally Displaced People and refugees,” despite “the challenges facing the Region.”
On Tuesday, the US delegation travelled to Baghdad and saw Iraqi Prime Minister, Haidar al Abadi. According to the brief description on Abadi’s Facebook page, they discussed “cooperation between Iraq and USAID, economic support, the return of displaced persons, the protection of minorities, and the training of local police.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has shown a far greater interest in promoting international religious freedom than his predecessor. As Nauert noted, the State Department will host a Ministerial-level conference later this month to address the issue.
She also explained that following their return to the US, Green and Brownback would report to Pence about the results of their trip, after which more information would be publicly available.
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R, Nebraska) and retired Congressman Frank Wolf were also part of the US delegation.
Fortenberry is co-chair of the Religious Minorities in the Middle East Caucus. His district includes the largest number of Yezidi families in the US.