Pence rebukes U.N. efforts to help Christians, announces Middle East trip

IMAGE: CNS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann, Catholic Standard

By Rhina Guidos

WASHINGTON (CNS) — U.S. Vice President Mike
Pence criticized the United Nations’ efforts to help persecuted Christians in
the Middle East in a speech Oct. 25.

Since the organization “failed”
to help Christians and other minority religious communities, he said, aid from the
United States from now on would be routed through the U.S. Agency for International
Development and “faith-based and private organizations” to help those who are
persecuted in the region.

The vice president, who was the keynote speaker at the
Solidarity Dinner for the Washington-based group In Defense of Christians, did not
identify any of the faith-based or private groups that will receive the money,
nor did he say how much they will receive, but instead criticized the U.N.
saying it had denied help to faith-based groups.

“Christians and those who are persecuted in the Middle East
should not have to rely on multinational institutions when America can help
them directly and tonight it is my privilege to announce that President (Donald) Trump
has ordered the State Department to stop funding the ineffective relief efforts
of the United Nations and from this day forward America will provide support
directly to persecuted communities,” he said.

The vice president also announced that he will be making a
trip to the Middle East in December but did not release details.

“I promise you one of the messages that I will bring on the
president’s behalf to the leaders across the region is that now is the time to
bring an end to the persecution of Christians and all religious minorities,” he

Pence was introduced at the dinner by Supreme Knight Carl Anderson, CEO of the Knights of Columbus. The dinner was part of three days of
prayer, workshops, meetings and a lobbying effort by the nonprofit In Defense
of Christians organization, which advocates mostly for Christians in the Middle
East but also calls attention to the plight of other minority groups in the

The organization primarily aims to call attention to disappearance of
Christians from their ancestral home, prompting Christians in the U.S. to do
something to help them. The organization claims “over 200,000 volunteer citizen
activists” in its ranks.

Pence said Christianity is facing “heartbreaking” acts of violence
as well as an “exodus” from its ancestral home, but said the Trump
administration is focused on destroying “the embodiment of evil in our time:
ISIS.” He largely focused on the group as the source of the evils perpetrated
on Christians who “are today the targets of unspeakable acts of violence and

“The vice president is correct that Christians are under
particularly brutal pressure in countries where local branches of IS are active,
such as Iraq, Syria, and Egypt,” said Michele Dunne, a senior associate at the
Middle East Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in

However, she said, “Christians have also faced persistent social, economic
and political discrimination in some of these countries for decades, long
before IS existed,” Dunne continued, explaining the complexity of the problems
in the region.

“I hope that when (the vice president) visits the Middle
East, and particularly Egypt, Pence will discuss both the urgent problem of
jihadi violence against Christians and the long-running problems of
discrimination and intercommunal violence, about which the government of President
Sissi has done very little,” Dunne said to Catholic News Service, speaking of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. 

“I hope he will also question whether the Egyptian government’s
campaign against terrorism — which involves extensive human rights abuses and
political repression — is really effective, or whether it might be fueling the
very radicalization that ends up brutalizing Christians,” Dunne added.

Absent from the vice president’s Oct. 25 speech was the
Trump administration’s stance toward refugees from some of the countries where
Christians are facing some of the violence he spoke about, including Iraq,
Syria and Egypt.

Though the vice president said in his speech “America will
support these people,” meaning Christians and other religious minorities facing
persecution in the Middle East, the day before, on Oct. 24, the administration
announced stricter restrictions for refugees wanting to come to the United
States from 11 countries. Though the countries were not named, news agency
Reuters reported that they were mostly from the Middle East and Africa, which
in the past included many persecuted Christians seeking refuge in the U.S.

“Of nearly 2,600 Iranian refugees resettled in the United
States last year, for instance, a majority were Christian,” Reuters reported.

In Defense of Christians, which hosted the speech, has
repeatedly asked Congress that any relief for Christians in the Middle East, in
terms of U.S. policy, include the admission of Christian refugees from certain
nations where persecution is particularly grave. In this year’s In Defense of
Christians summit policy agenda, the organization says it supports a bill that
would provide immediate relief to minority religious groups in Iraq and Syria,
particularly Christians and Yezidis.

“These communities would receive special humanitarian status
and refugee resettlement priority in the U.S.,” the organization says on its

Most of the Trump administration’s efforts, however, have
focused on allowing fewer, not more, refugees into the United States, and have
sought greater restrictions for those coming from majority-Muslim countries, including
some nations where Christians in Middle East are facing peril.

In late September, Bishop Joe S. Vasquez of Austin, Texas,
who is chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on
Migration, voiced objections about the historical low level of refugee admissions
under Trump, who will limit the number of refugees the United States
accepts to 45,000 for the upcoming fiscal year.

It is the lowest admission level for persons fleeing persecution that
the U.S. has accepted since the 1980s, when the executive branch was allowed to
set the caps under the Refugee Act.

“As I have stated before, this decision has very severe
human consequences — people with faces, names, children and families are
suffering and cannot safely or humanely remain where they are until the war and
persecution in their countries of origin gets resolved,” Bishop Vasquez said.

people include at-risk women and children; frightened youth; the elderly; those
whose lives are threatened because of their religion, ethnicity or race; and
refugees seeking family reunification with loved ones in the United States,” the bishop said.

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