Mike Pence Reportedly Directed USAID Funds To Christian Groups, Sparking Fears Of Constitutional Violations

The concerns are focused on USAID funding to groups in Iraq, though the administration has said they plan to start programs directed toward minority groups in other countries.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence announces the Trump Administration's plan to create the U.S. Space Force by 2020 during a speech at the Pentagon August 9, 2018 in Arlington, Virginia.
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The concerns are focused on USAID funding to groups in Iraq, though the administration has said they plan to start programs directed toward minority groups in other countries.

The office of Vice President Mike Pence has reportedly spearheaded U.S. efforts to provide USAID funds specifically to Christian minority groups in Iraq in a move some reportedly fear is in violation of the U.S. Constitution, according to a report Wednesday from ProPublica.

Per ProPublica, the United States government has directed some $373 million in funding particularly to religious minority groups in Iraq from the beginning of the Trump administration’s tenure in 2017 to July of this year. Religious minorities make up about 2 to 3 percent of the population in the country, and include Christians, Yazidis and other groups. Ninety-seven percent of the country is Muslim.

Bashar Warda, an archbishop from Erbil, Iraq, who was a key figure in claims that current U.N. assistance was not benefiting the religious minorities in the region, met with the vice president in 2017 and would stand beside President Trump in the Oval Office when he signed a bill into law aiming to provide aid particularly to victims of the Islamic State who are religious minorities, ProPublica reported.

Several individuals within the department had reportedly privately expressed feelings that Warda had downplayed the effectiveness of the current U.N. missions in the region and how the operations benefited the community.

There are also concerns among some – described in the report as career officials – that the practice of specifically designating funds toward a particular religion could be considered unconstitutional. USAID rules forbid organizations from using aid money for religious purposes, like worshiping, though faith-based organizations can still receive funds so long as they are used inclusively and not for religious programming, ProPublica reported.

The constitutional concerns center around the establishment clause, which is reportedly reflected in USAID policy. The establishment clause prevents the government from conducting an act that shows favoritism toward one religious group. One source, who spoke to ProPublica on the condition of anonymity, said Trump administration officials are often exasperated when some push back against the directed aid, citing constitutional concerns.

“They find it very constraining,” the anonymous source told ProPublica. “They get frustrated that we can’t just do direct support.”

Despite these concerns, ProPublica reported that career lawyers at USAID still review all aid in order to ensure that it is legal.

Some Christians in the Middle East were also reportedly worried over what potential favoritism from the U.S. could do to further destabilize conflicts in the region, while members of the State Department and USAID have reportedly pushed back on the the Christian minority focus of the administration, claiming that Christians in Iraq are not the group facing the greatest discrimination. Trump administration officials reportedly were only concerned about Christian minorities and had to be educated by career officials about the Yazidis, a small ethnic group that had been specifically targeted by the Islamic State, ProPublica said.

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As ProPublica reported, the Obama administration had not said specifically how many funds in aid were directed toward the religious minorities in the region, which makes a direct comparison between the two most recent presidencies difficult. A Trump administration spokesperson told ProPubica that some $1.5 billion in aid had been given as a whole to Iraq between 2017 and 2018.

As ProPublica reported, USAID is reportedly expanding its programming of protecting religious minorities beyond Iraq. The agency is reportedly planning to start programs in Lebanon, Morocco, and Tunisia.