Why Many Middle East Christians Fear USAID Funding Could be Both Good and Bad for the Persecuted Church

Vice President Mike Pence addresses the In Defense of Christians’ fourth-annual national advocacy summit in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

Only weeks earlier, the families had relocated to Teleskof in the Nineveh Plain, following its liberation from ISIS. But the Kurdish independence referendum sparked a new crisis in the region. The Iraqi government moved quickly to reclaim lands controlled by the Kurdish peshmerga fighters. Shia militias linked with Iran also threatened the Christian areas, forcing families to flee once more.

“They are very tired. They just rebuilt their homes,” said Bahro, head of Zalal Life Civil Society Foundation and former director of the Evangelical Alliance of Kurdistan. “Now they are scared to remain in government-held cities.”

Zalal Life distributed 300 food baskets and bottles of water. The government of Hungary donated $2 million in aid for reconstruction. The United Nations wasn’t there.

“People are not happy with the UN; they are using money for administration,” said Bahro. “The help is coming from churches and Christian organizations.”

The Iraqi Christian leader praised charities like Voice of the Martyrs, Tear Fund, Operation Mercy, and World Vision. And he welcomed American vice president Mike Pence’s statement that the US Agency for International Development (USAID) will start to fund Christian groups in the region directly.

“They are here in the area, they know what’s happening, and they go immediately to help,” Bahro said.

Maan Bitar, pastor of the Presbyterian church in Hama, Syria, confirmed concerns that UN aid was not reaching Christians in the Middle East.

“Christians receive only a trickle of the aid and other programs set for IDPs [internally displaced persons] inside Syria,” he said. “In the camps and on the Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan refugee lists, they are virtually non-existent.”

Melkite Archbishop Issam Darwish of Zahle, Lebanon, has tried to fill in the gap. Two years ago he opened a free restaurant for refugees in his diocese that serves 1,000 hot meals a day—to Muslims and Christians equally.

“If the US can help Christian organizations directly, it will be good—if it can be done without discrimination,” he said. “They must serve Muslims and other minorities also. We live together, and want to remain together in our communities.”

Working with Christian organizations isn’t enough to ensure the money will be spent well, according to one Egyptian Christian leader who asked CT for anonymity.

“Often in churches there is an attitude that the money is for God, and the leadership can spend it as it will,” he said. “Without the same level of due diligence and transparent accounting as in NGOs, there may be sincere misappropriation of funds.”

The UN has not always been the best steward either, said Botros Mansour, general director of the Baptist School in Nazareth, Israel. Critical of both the Obama and Trump administrations, he has a different administrative concern: politics.

“Having the US transfer funds directly to persecuted Christians could be a good thing, but American politics will surely mingle in,” the Israeli Arab Christian said. “They will want to brag about the aid to show their success, and to prove to the Christian Right that [President Donald Trump] delivers on his promises.”

The long-term consequences, however, could be disastrous, warns Mansour. Suppose a church is destroyed and US money comes in to fix it. He believes the radicals would come back again, stronger.

“The fuel will be the high-profile appearance of US aid, bringing opposition and resentment,” Mansour said. “American politics and the good of Christians do not necessarily overlap.”

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SOURCE: Christianity Today, Jayson Casper