State Department reaffirms protections for Iraq’s religious minorities

State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert issued a statement reaffirming the Department’s commitment to assisting vulnerable, threatened Iraqi communities decimated by IS.

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) - On Monday, State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert issued a statement reaffirming the Department’s commitment to assisting vulnerable and threatened Iraqi communities which were decimated by the Islamic State (IS) and its brutalities.

“This Administration has made the protection of Iraq’s diversity of faiths and its threatened religious minorities a top and unceasing priority,” Nauert stated.

“All available US resources are committed to implementing the Administration’s vision for the protection of these threatened people,” her statement continued, “and to ensuring the help we promised arrives before it is too late.”

The State Department’s reaffirmation of its commitment follows an unusual public rebuke which the office of Vice President Mike Pence issued on Friday to the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

“President Trump and Vice President Pence made restoring the rights and property of Iraq’s Christian and Yezidi communities, who were nearly wiped out by [IS’] genocidal campaign against them, a top and unceasing priority of their administration,” the statement, published by the Vice President’s Press Secretary, Alyssa Farah, affirmed.

The statement noted that Trump had “directed” the US government “to stop using slow, ineffective and wasteful United Nations programs and to instead distribute assistance through USAID in order to provide faster and more direct aid to Christian and Yezidi communities in Iraq.”

However, USAID apparently failed to follow those directions. It rejected proposals submitted by private charities to aid those communities, and, instead, prepared to funnel assistance through a UN-linked organization—prompting the strong statement from Pence’s office on Friday.

The message got through, as the State Department affirmed on Monday that USAID Administrator Mark Green “will travel to Iraq in the coming weeks” to determine how to speed America’s assistance to “these vulnerable people.”

The US Embassy in Baghdad and Consulate in Erbil will assist Green in his mission, Nauert explained.

The overwhelming majority of Iraq’s minorities live in the north of the country—in the Nineveh Plains around Mosul or in the Kurdistan Region. Many of those who fled IS took refuge in the Kurdistan Region and are only now slowly returning to their homes, as they are made habitable by the restoration of basic services and the disarming and removal of explosive devices left behind by IS—as a way of continuing its reign of terror, even after its defeat.

Two weeks ago, the State Department issued its annual report on International Religious Freedom.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo introduced the report, as it was publicly rolled out, explaining why promoting religious freedom is in the US national interest and why it is a Trump administration priority.

“Where fundamental freedoms of religion, expression, press and peaceful assembly are under attack, we find conflict, instability, and terrorism,” Pompeo said. However, “governments and societies that champion these freedoms are more secure, stable and peaceful.”

Pompeo also revealed that next month the State Department will host the “first ever” ministerial-level conference to advance religious freedom.

“It will not just be a discussion group,” he affirmed, but it will identify “concrete ways” to counter persecution and “ensure greater respect for religious freedom for all.”

Sam Brownback is Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. Kurdistan 24 spoke with him, following the publication of the report from his office.

“The Kurds have been particularly good about protecting people of minority faiths and much more supportive of basic religious freedom,” Amb. Brownback said.

“They haven’t formed their government” on the basis of a “particular faith,” he explained. Rather, their government is “defined” much more “as a group and an area.”

Paul Davis, formerly a Pentagon analyst on Kurdish affairs and now a Senior Fellow at Soran University, complained to Kurdistan 24 that the Kurds do not get the credit they deserve for their tolerance. He suggested that one likely reason was the State Department’s rigid interpretation of its “one-Iraq” policy and the tendency to see everything through a Baghdad-centric lens.