Vice President Mike Pence has recently been on a circuit of conservative Christian conferences discussing religious persecution in the Middle East. He addressed Christians United for Israel in July, spoke at Franklin Graham’s conference on international religious freedom in May, and regularly incorporates the issue into his public statements.
On Wednesday, he continued this tour with a speech at the In Defense of Christians conference, where he announced that he will be visiting persecuted minorities in the Middle East in December. He also said the Trump administration will redirect aid money formerly granted to the United Nations to the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, satisfying a long-standing conservative policy priority. As the Trump administration moves to slash the State Department’s aid budget, this announcement suggests it will continue to prioritize religious issues in its foreign-policy agenda—at least rhetorically.
In his comments on Wednesday, Pence made it clear that the Trump administration is specifically focused on protecting Christians as part of its national-security agenda. “Christianity is under unprecedented assault in those ancient lands where it first grew,” the vice president said. “Across the wider Middle East, we can now see a future in many areas without a Christian faith. But tonight, I came to tell you: Help is on the way.” He specifically called out the “radical Islamic terrorists” who have perpetrated “vile acts of persecution animated by hatred for Christians and the Gospel of Christ.” He promised to “[take] the fight to terrorists on our terms, on their soil,” and that “we will not rest, we will not relent, until we hunt down and destroy ISIS at its source, so it can no longer threaten our people or anyone who calls the Middle East home.”
All of this is familiar territory for the Trump administration. Since the president took office, he has been promising to eradicate terrorism and eliminate the “beachhead of intolerance” created by radicalism. What was different here is that Pence promised a policy shift to accompany the rhetoric: Based on claims that the United Nations often denies funding requests from faith-based organizations and provides only “ineffective relief efforts,” the administration will now “provide support directly” through USAID.
Conservative religious-freedom advocates have long pushed for money to be redirected away from the UN. “I am overjoyed,” said Nina Shea, the director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute. “The [UN] projects that are taking place are superficial and cosmetic projects—coats of paint rather than a renovation or a reconstruction.” This funding shift, she said, is “a battle won.”
It seemed clear from Pence’s speech that religious aid organizations have been influential in bringing about this decision: The vice president specifically mentioned Carl Anderson, the head of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic group that provides aid to Christians in Iraq and elsewhere, for his humanitarian efforts. “The hope this announcement will give to Christians in the Middle East—and the real world impact it will have on the survival of threatened minority communities—cannot be underestimated,” Anderson said in a statement.
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SOURCE: The Atlantic, Emma Green