By Samuel Smith , CP Reporter
(Photo: Archdiocese of Erbil)Father Thabet Habib inspects damage in the town of Karamles, Iraq right after the town was liberated from the Islamic State in October 2016.
The United States government has agreed to a partnership with a leading Catholic humanitarian group that aims to help the administration facilitate the much needed aid and assistance to help persecuted religious minorities in the Middle East.
The U.S. Agency International Development has agreed to a memorandum of understanding with the nation’s leading Catholic fraternal organization, Knights of Columbus.
The goal of the agreement is to “facilitate partnerships to help communities in the Middle East recover from genocide and persecution” and connect the agency with local faith and community leaders to help deliver aid rapidly to persecuted Christian communities.
Under the agreement, the Knights will help USAID by sharing information and identifying projects and potential recipients of aid.
The Knights of Columbus have been one of the most active U.S.-based groups on the ground supporting the recovery effort for the beleaguered Christian community in the Nineveh Plains, which was decimated when IS gained control from 2014 to 2017. The Knights have already committed $20 million to recovery and humanitarian efforts in Iraq since 2014.
The agreement comes as the U.S. government continues to face criticism amid claims that the U.S. hasn’t provided aid to Iraq’s Christian community.
Even though over $200 million has been designated by USAID for planned and active assistance to support the recovery in Northern Iraq, the head of Iraq’s Chaldean Catholic Church claimed recently that the U.S. hasn’t “done anything” to help Christians in the Middle East.
USAID responded by pushing back against any notion that the agency hasn’t provided aid to religious minorities in Iraq.
In a press release, USAID acknowledged that it could use the help of Knights of Columbus because “their deep experience promoting interfaith dialogue provides them with a reach and a voice in communities that often exceeds our own.”
“The importance of a trusted voice when assisting survivors of genocide cannot be overstated,” a USAID statement reads. “The Memorandum of Understanding will allow USAID and the Knights of Columbus to leverage U.S. government funding against the contributions of American philanthropists in a coordinated response to genocide and persecution. USAID and the Knights of Columbus will work together to identify populations in need and assist them, convene local actors, advance pluralism, and collaborate on efforts to prevent future atrocities.”
On Tuesday, USAID announced that it has doubled its total assistance to support persecuted ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq since July to over $239 million.
Since Vice President Mike Pence announced the creation of the Genocide Recovery and Persecution Response Initiative in July, USAID has expanded the number of partners it’s working with to help persecuted minority communities in Iraq. USAID is now working with 36 local, 11 faith-based and 27 international organizations in Iraq.
“But the measure of progress is not in dollar amounts, it is in the lives and communities we have helped revive and restore, and in the concrete progress on the ground in Iraq’s Nineva Plains,” USAID Administrator Mark Green said in a statement. “One example is in the town of Bashiqa, where USAID’s assistance has repaired war-damaged houses, and provided essential household goods to enable families to return.”
Additionally, Green said, USAID has funded the rehabilitation of wells that provide clear water to over 12,000 residents. The agency has helped repair transformers and other electrical utility structures, financed mobile medical units and helped improve safety around schools and other public areas.
“USAID is helping families build a future in Bashiqa by providing 21 schools in the town with the equipment necessary for students to continue their education,” Green added. “We are also helping residents heal by funding events to commemorate the suffering of the Yazidi community, and by supporting dialogue among people of different faiths. Through our new partnerships and increased resources, USAID will continue to support those who are working to create an Iraq that is peaceful, diverse, and prosperous.”
Responding to the criticisms of the U.S. government’s response in Iraq, Knights of Columbus spokesperson Joe Cullen said that the key is to look at “how challenges have been addressed.”
“In this case, it is clear that USAID has taken providing support to communities targeted for genocide by ISIS very seriously,” Cullen said in a statement shared with The Christian Post. “It has dispatched a highly qualified special representative to the region to facilitate assisting these communities and to make sure that work done with U.S. money is done well. It has provided funding or equipment for a number of projects directly to affected communities, and has also provided massive amounts of money for the rebuilding of infrastructure in Nineveh province.”
The special representative that Cullen referenced is Max Primorac who was recently appointed to the U.S. Consulate General in Erbil.
Cullen added that Green has also traveled extensively to build relationships with religious leaders to facilitate support for the persecuted communities.
“This [memorandum of understanding] is one expression of the way in which USAID is finding creative avenues for reaching these communities,” Cullen said.
According to Cullen, USAID and the Knights of Columbus have already begun the funding of three projects.
Those projects include the provision of psychosocial services to displaced Yazidis in Dohuk, the restoration of graveyards desecrated by IS in the Nineveh Plains, and the creation of a property rights center to “help Christians and Yazidis navigate the legal process so that they can keep their homes and land.”
Cullen explained that the three projects are co-designed by the Knights and USAID and cost more than $700,000.
As part of the agreement, USAID and the Knights of Columbus will work to build “a network of religious leaders within the region that can be assisted with development and relocation assistance for their communities.”
“[W]e are introducing USAID to key religious leaders and NGO leaders in Iraq and in the United States,” Cullen said. “We anticipate even more such work together going forward.”
Green met with Sako earlier this week at the Vatican to address some of his concerns.
“I thought we had a great meeting,” Green told EWTN. “Part of what we did was to let him know about the great work that we have been doing in months and in particularly recent days. Just this week, we announced $178 million in additional assistance that is going directly into these communities, expanded partnerships with the Knights of Columbus, Malteser International, Caritas Iraq. We had lots of good news to bring to his attention and I think he was very pleased.”