By Courtney Grogan
Vice President Mike Pence announced the establishment of the Genocide Recovery and Persecution Response Program on Thursday “to rapidly deliver aid to persecuted communities, beginning with Iraq.”
Speaking July 26, at the State Department’s Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, Pence said that he hopes that the genocide recovery program “will not only deliver additional support to the most vulnerable communities,” but also “embolden civil society to help stop violence in the future.”
The Christian and Yazidi minorities of northern Iraq were decimated by the Islamic State in 2014. While these communities are beginning to rebuild, the mass atrocities and ethnic cleansing they endured cannot easily be overcome.
Nadia Murad, a young Yazidi girl, was in the audience listening as the vice president shared her story.
“Four years ago, the butchers of ISIS entered her village and slaughtered more than 600 Yazidi men and boys, including six of Nadia’s brothers and step-brothers. Then they stole Nadia away and all the young women, and subjugated them to the most degrading form of human slavery.”
“Thousands of Yazidis remain missing to this day or in ISIS captivity,” he continued. The Yazidi women who have survived and escaped the Islamic State, like Nadia, have returned with stories of rape and torture.
The new initiative will bring together funding from the U.S. government and “the vast network of American philanthropists and believers,” said Pence. The State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development will partner with local faith and community leaders to ensure “this support will flow directly to individuals and households most in need of help.”
“America will help the victims of ISIS reclaim their lands, rebuild their lives, and replant their roots in their ancient homelands so that all religions can flourish, once again, across the Middle East and the ancient world.”
Earlier the same day, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used the Ministerial to announce that the State Department will provide an additional $17 million in funding for landmine clearance in the Nineveh region of Iraq “with a large population of religious minorities who were subject to ISIS genocide.”
Vice President Pence also used his address to the Ministerial to demand the release of American evangelical Pastor Andrew Brunson, who has been detained in Turkey since October. The vice president said that, unless Turkey acted swiftly, sanctions would be imposed.
“To President Erdogan and the Turkish government, I have a message on behalf of the President of the United States of America: Release Pastor Andrew Brunson now, or be prepared to face the consequences.”
“If Turkey does not take immediate action to free this innocent man of faith and send him home to America, the United States will impose significant sanctions on Turkey until Pastor Andrew Brunson is free.”
According to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, Brunson was moved from a Turkish prison to house arrest on 25 July. The commission has advocated for the pastor’s release, along with that of six other prisoners of conscience in China, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Vietnam, and Eritrea.
“To believers across America, I say: Pray for Pastor Brunson. While he is out of jail, he is still not free,” Pence said.
Secretary Pompeo announced several other religious freedom initiatives on the final day of the State Department Ministerial, including a new International Religious Freedom Fund, International Visitor Leadership Program, and a three-day public-private partnership workshop in religious freedom called “Boldline.”
The State Department Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom will become an annual event, and the U.S. will support other countries who plan to host their own religious freedom conferences. Vice President Pence underscored that religious freedom was an ongoing foreign policy priority
“Today, tragically, a stunning 83 percent of the world’s population live in nations where religious freedom is either threatened or even banned,” said Pence.
“But as our Founders knew, this precious liberty is endowed not by government, but by our Creator. And we believe that it belongs not just to the American people, but to all people so endowed.”
Pence spoke out against the persecution of religious minorities in Iran, Russia, China, and North Korea. He also lamented the rise in anti-semitism in Europe.
The vice president highlighted the story of a Catholic priest in Nicaragua, Father Raul Zamora, whose parish was attacked by paramilitary forces earlier this month.
“In Nicaragua, the government of Daniel Ortega is virtually waging war on the Catholic Church. For months, Nicaragua’s bishops have sought to broker a national dialogue following pro-democracy protests that swept through the country earlier this year”
“But government-backed mobs armed with machetes, and even heavy weapons, have attacked parishes and church properties, and bishops and priests have been physically assaulted by the police.”
Addressing Fr. Zamora directly, Pence said “Let me say to you, Father: Our prayers are with you, and the people of America stand with you for freedom of religion and freedom in Nicaragua.”
Pence concluded his remarks to the more than 80 foreign delegations attending the Ministerial with a quote from Leviticus that is inscribed on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land, and unto [all] the inhabitants thereof.”