In all the talk of tax reform, JFK theories and indictments this past week, two significant events affecting religious freedom issues flew under the radar.

At the end of October, Vice President Mike Pence announced a new policy—that the U.S. would directly fund threatened religious minority groups, cutting out the U.N. as a middleman. And the next day, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback received an 11-10 confirmation vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, bringing him one step closer to becoming the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom.

While these political moves may seem minor, they matter in the bigger picture: how the uniquely American value of standing for religious freedom affects world events. It’s perhaps the only common value that can unite Jews, Muslims, atheists, every stream of Christianity and all religions to speak with one voice.

These strange bedfellows came together last week at the International Religious Freedom Roundtable annual event in Washington, D.C. Government officials, non-profit groups and citizen activists shared updates and raised questions—and not merely on current developments with Pence and Brownback.

“ISIS put religious freedom on the map,” stated Knox Thames, special advisor for religious minorities at the State Department. His remarks emphasized how terrorists who targeted religious groups elevated these issues to a broader, global conversation. Now he urged the varied leaders to remain united for the oppressed.

“How much worse would the problem be had we not been here?” Thames asked. “We cannot grow weary; this is trench warfare. We are on firm ground when we speak for religious freedom.” Looking closer at how these issues play out—particularly in Iraq after military action has dispersed ISIS—reveals the complexity and need for vigilance.

Does America Only Pay Lip Service to Religious Freedom?

Since President Bill Clinton signed the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) into law, the U.S. has made the protection of people outside its borders a foreign policy priority—in part, to ensure their freedom to believe as they see fit.

In his keynote address, Knox Thames quoted at length from the law championed by Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA) decades ago. IRFA states in part: It shall be the policy of the United States to be vigorous and flexible, reflecting… the most effective and principled response… standing for liberty and standing with the persecuted.

These are high-minded words, and religious freedom advocates agree the U.S. has rarely lived up to them since the 1998 law was enacted. In fact, a rising chorus of voices notes how current U.S. treatment of the beleaguered Kurdish people in northern Iraq reflects stark hypocrisy of these principles.

Seth Frantzman, a foreign policy expert and currently op-ed editor for The Jerusalem Post, has followed the Iraq conflict closely. In an extensive post this past weekend, he uncovered several factors at play in the region. Yet the central point is about America’s fatigue in its global leadership.

“Of course, the U.S. pays lip-service to ‘democracy’ and ‘self-determination’ historically,” writes Frantzman. “The State Department releases its annual ‘religious freedom’ report. But U.S. allies in the world tend to be countries who restrict religious freedom the most.”

Others in non-profit advocacy affirm that events unfolding in Iraq are tragic, even as they persist in urging policymakers to act on the nation’s stated moral principles.

“It is crisis mode in northern Iraq, no question,” says Nathan Wineinger of the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, a religious freedom group where former Congressman Wolf serves as senior fellow. “Anyone with children is gone, which means the future of that society is in jeopardy.”

Religious Minorities Breathe a Sigh of Relief

As an example of religious freedom principles put into action, Wineinger pointed to the 2016 effort to have ISIS terrorism formally condemned as genocide.

“After Secretary Kerry made the genocide declaration, people targeted for violence were able to access relief and resources,” he says. “Hundreds, even thousands of civil servants made decisions based on that concerted effort, which involved Congress, the State Department and the advocacy community.”

The statement given by Secretary of State John Kerry on March 17 of last year closely aligned with a resolution approved in the House three days before—by a bipartisan vote of 393-0. Religious freedom advocates advanced their message behind-the-scenes for months before the House vote. “Coalition groups hit this issue from a thousand different fronts,” states Wineinger of the bipartisan effort.

Still, the charges brought by Frantzman cannot be easily dismissed. American foreign policy has been full of contradictions and hypocrisies, perhaps all the more cynical under the current administration. “In general it views dictatorships, monarchies and states that suppress religious freedom as stable and reliable,” Frantzman observes about U.S. policy. “Democracies are chaotic.”

One could call Iraq, a powder keg of tribal factions with a central government trying to censor news media, the worst of both worlds. No easy answers exist. At last week’s In Defense of Christians summit, Vice President Mike Pence announced a U.S. policy change to attempt to save lives and help targeted religious minorities.

“Tonight, it is my privilege to announce that President Trump has ordered the State Department to stop funding ineffective relief efforts at the United Nations,” Pence stated to a room packed with religious freedom advocates. “From this day forward, America will provide support directly to persecuted communities through USAID.”

The statement was short on detail, though the phrase relief funding has intention behind it. Current policy distinguishes between humanitarian relief funding, generally provided in response to emergency disasters, and development aid—projects that are long-term and often funded by government grants.

At the roundtable event the next morning, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) Acting Director for Faith-based and Community Initiatives Timothy Lavelle responded to how the announcement would play out in policy. “Let me just say simply: Stay tuned,” he said. “As humble servants of the United States government, when the big boss speaks, we listen. If he says jump, we jump.”

When Simple Goals Are Tough to Execute

Lavelle also grappled with a related question, one reflected in remarks by Vice President Pence the night before. “Many in this room have rightly observed that the Christians and persecuted peoples of the Middle East have not been getting the relief they need,” he said.

Have USAID and the UN intentionally excluded certain groups from receiving funding? The answer gets more complex the deeper one goes.

“The goal of relief funding is simple if you think in terms of one person,” says Wineinger. “We want food to enter mouth, medicine to enter bloodstream, and shelter overhead.” Why small religious groups in crisis areas haven’t been granted government funds to do this work is not easy to ascertain.

Relief groups on the ground see one aspect of the issue. Dalton Thomas heads up Frontier Alliance International, a non-profit that provides relief and medical services in Iraq. “Being around locals in conflict zones, I hear what they think about aid organizations,” he said in a recent call from the Middle East. “Locals in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey feel these groups come here to profit off of their suffering.”

Thomas says providing relief workers higher salaries for serving in a conflict zone creates the context to benefit from war. “In other words, for a lot of organizations including the United Nations, it’s a bad thing if the war ends,” he states bluntly.

He shares what he has seen after three years serving in Iraq with a small faith-based group. “It is shameful that we are sending all these aid workers to sit in fancy hotels, drink coffee and write assessment reports of assessment reports,” Thomas states with conviction. “They get paid this massive salary, with tons of risk insurance, with flashy vehicles and all the bells and whistles—to do nothing.”

Timothy Lavelle of USAID confirmed some of these assertions when he addressed the roundtable in Washington. “Security is a major consideration,” he said of relief work in Iraq. “No ambassador in any given country wants to lose anyone on their watch.”

“If we do go to Erbil [in northern Iraq], it’s with ten bodyguards, ten armored vehicles and what have you,” said Lavelle. He added that such security requirements keep USAID from working with a greater number of entities.

Sometimes, however, a simpler issue causes the disconnect. The UN designates a “cluster coordinator”—yes, some find humor in the title—for each sector in crisis, such as health, education and shelter. Local aid groups need to first show up to the cluster meetings to be considered for funds.

Certain religious groups have vocally criticized exclusion from funding, even in a Congressional hearing. Yet according to multiple sources, these groups did not attempt to apply for funding through proper channels in country. How the new policy change, shifting funds from the UN to USAID, will change this is yet to be seen.

One leader sure to be grappling with the proposed reforms is former Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, set to be a leading global advocate for minority groups.

What Can Brown(back) Do For the U.S.?  

Brownback has been nominated as Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, a role defined by the aforementioned 1998 law. As a Senator at the time, Brownback helped create the position he’s now been nominated to fill.

Longtime religious freedom advocates fully endorse the nominee, including his influential (and notably liberal) predecessor Rabbi David Saperstein.

At the roundtable event, Saperstein said, “Governor Brownback will bring prestige and a set of connections to these issues that will make a real difference.” He cited Brownback’s Senate efforts against human trafficking and the horrific Sudan civil war as examples of leadership.

The Senate confirmation hearing for Brownback on October 4 reflected bipartisan rapport, as even Democratic Senators Tim Kaine and Jeanne Shaheen expressed respect for his record on religious freedom. Yet the confirmation vote days later ended up 11-10, along party lines. Brownback may yet garner bipartisan support during the full Senate vote expected in coming weeks.

As to Thomas, who leads Frontier Alliance International, he believes the non-profit sector needs as much reform as government entities. “The major aid organizations, secular and faith-based, need to go through a serious overhaul,” he says.

To address concerns about salaries, he has started with his own group. “As the founder and CEO of the organization, I don’t receive a salary. Then I can say with integrity and confidence to donors: if you give money to this, it’s going direct to operational expenses on the ground and not my salary,” he says, noting he raises monthly support from close friends.

When Brownback takes office, ongoing issues of how to prioritize government funds will not be solved overnight. Certain regions face entrenched conflicts difficult to untangle, Iraq foremost among them. Twenty years of persistent work on international religious freedom have proven one thing: united action from a diverse coalition of leaders can create change.

“We need to make it clear to the world that we are watching how they treat prisoners of conscience,” stated Rabbi Saperstein in his remarks. “Standing together, we’ve seen countless lives saved—and we must continue to be weavers of the dreams of freedom.

Josh M. Shepherd covers culture, faith, and public policy issues for media outlets including The Federalist and The Stream. A graduate of the University of Colorado, he previously worked on staff at The Heritage Foundation and Focus on the Family. Josh and his wife live in the Washington, D.C. area.


Photo Credit: Refugees in Iraq receive aid from Christian relief workers. Since the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), more than 10 million people have been displaced. Photo by Michael Reynolds, courtesy of Frontier Alliance International.