Vice President Mike Pence has pledged that the Trump administration will come to the rescue of Christians in the Middle East, as persecution of religious minorities in the region continues.
He said that Washington will move funding away from the United Nations to the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, in order to directly assist Christian communities in the Middle East.
“Christianity is under unprecedented assault in those ancient lands where it first grew,” the vice president said at a speech to the In Defense of Christians conference.
“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 took aim at the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), which overran large areas of Iraq and Syria in 2014 and forced thousands of Christians to flee, and imprisoned or executed them if they remained. He said the group’s fighters had committed “vile acts of persecution animated by hatred for Christians and the Gospel of Christ.”
Pence said Washington would take “the fight to terrorists on our terms, on their soil” and “hunt down and destroy ISIS at its source, so it can no longer threaten our people or anyone who calls the Middle East home.”
The president’s team has predominantly focused on talking about helping Christians in the Middle East, as opposed to Muslims in the region affected by radical Islamist groups. Critics of the government accused it of targeting Muslims in a proposed travel ban on six Muslim-majority countries that President Donald Trump said was only touted for security reasons.
Pence explained the divergence of funds from the U.N., saying that it was an “ineffective” use of U.S. money.
“Here is the sad reality: the United Nations claims that more than 160 projects are in Christian areas. But for a third of those projects, there are no Christians to help,” the vice-president said.
Christian leaders have said that followers of the religion are experiencing some of the worst persecution in its history.
A report recently released by Christian organization Aid To The Church In Need said the U.N. was not meeting the requirements of Christians in the Middle East and failing to provide “the emergency help they needed as genocide got underway,” the Catholic Herald reported.
The population of Christians in the Middle East has declined over the past century. But the insecurity faced by Christians in recent years has seen their population decrease even more. As of July 2015, a third of Syria’s 600,000 Christians had fled; Lebanon’s Christian population share has shrunk from 78 percent to 34 percent over the previous century; and only a third of the 1.5 million Christians who lived in Iraq in 2003 remain today, according to The New York Times.
Catholic organization the Knights of Columbus lauded Pence’s words.
“A year ago the United States used the right word to describe what was happening to Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East. That word was genocide. Tonight, those words were put into action,” the group’s Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson said in a statement.
Others were more skeptical about the U.S. pledge. Diana Sarkisian, who works for A Demand For Action, an advocacy organization for minority groups in the Middle East, tweeted: “Mike Pence makes big promises to defend Christians in ME (Middle East). Yeah, heard that one before.”