Vice President Mike Pence announced that the Trump administration would alter its approach to providing aid to Christian minorities in the Middle East by shifting a portion of funding from the United Nations and redirecting it into the U.S. Agency for International Development.
On Oct. 25, Pence spoke before the In Defense of Christians' annual dinner in Washington, D.C. The vice president signaled that the administration would prioritize protecting Christian minorities in its foreign policy for the Middle East, The Associated Press reports.
"President [Donald] Trump has directed me to go to the Middle East in late December..." Pence told the dinner attendees. "...One of the messages that I will bring on the president's behalf to leaders across the region is that now is the time to bring an end to the persecution of Christians and all religious minorities."
The vice president added that Trump had ordered the U.S. Department of State to shift funding away from UN programs designed to provide aid to displaced religious minorities and into USAID.
"From this day forward, America will provide support directly to persecuted communities through USAID," Pence said. "Our fellow Christians and all who are persecuted in the Middle East should not have to rely on multinational institutions when America can help them directly."
Pence is scheduled to travel to Egypt and Israel in December, where he will meet with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to discuss peace and security initiatives in the region.
Center for Religious Freedom director Nina Shea of the Hudson Institute asserted after the dinner event that it would be a step in the right direction for the U.S. to redirect funds from the UN to USAID.
"The [UN] projects that are taking place are superficial and cosmetic projects -- coats of paint rather than a renovation or a reconstruction," Shea told The Atlantic, adding that the funding shift is "a battle won."
USAID would not disperse U.S. funding directly to displaced religious minorities, but would provide the money to non-governmental organizations in the region.
Pence's announcement arrived after some criticized the Trump administration for allegedly not doing enough to help Christian minorities in the Middle East and for proposing deep cuts to the USAID budget.
"The schizophrenia is that they don't like international aid," Shaun Casey, director of Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, said of the Trump administration.
Casey expressed skepticism about whether the Trump administration was prioritizing aid to religious minorities or mounting a public relations stunt for Christian groups.
“They could absolutely devastate the global USAID budget, but if they come up with $10 million to put in the hands of a group of conservative Christian NGOs on the ground, that’s how they’re going to take credit," Casey said.
The State Department has not disclosed how much money it would from the UN to USAID.
Alon Ben-Meir, senior fellow of the Center for Global Affairs at NYU noted in an op-ed that Christians comprised no more than 4 percent of the Middle East's population. Ben-Meir asserted poverty among the region's Muslim majority and rising nationalism fueled persecution of Christians in the Middle East over the last 15 years.
"Significant funding is needed for religious programming so that citizens of a given country can develop legal practices and cultural tools which offer training and instruction in religious tolerance," Ben-Meir wrote in his HuffPost op-ed. "In order to address these issues, federal agencies including USAID need to enforce their mandates, as do nonprofits whose mission is to promote religious freedom initiatives."