Biden admin puts religious freedom programs on hold

Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to be the next Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Tuesday, March 23, 2021 on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Samantha Power, President Joe Biden’s choice to head the U.S. Agency for International Development, literally wrote the book on America’s poor record of fighting genocides around the world even as the nation’s leaders have promised “never again” after the Holocaust.

Power’s “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide” earned her a nonfiction book Pulitzer Prize in 2003 and helped launch her out of academia to eventually become President Obama’s U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Despite Power’s history of fighting human-rights violations around the world, some foreign policy experts and former Trump administration officials worry that the Biden administration is beginning to dismantle their work aimed at helping genocide victims even before Power arrives at USAID.

Over the last few weeks, they have started voicing deep concerns that the new administration’s shift to a broader human rights focus and away from prioritizing religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy will hurt progress made over the last four years in helping populations persecuted for their religious beliefs.

In late March, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that shift, which includes a focus on the rights of immigrants and refugees, victims of human trafficking, LGBTQ individuals and women’s access to abortion, birth control and other reproductive options. Blinken faulted the Trump administration for what he characterized as an “unbalanced” emphasis on religious liberty over other concerns.

“Human rights are also co-equal. There is no hierarchy that makes some rights more important than others,” Blinken said during remarks at a State Department’s release of its 45th annual report on the status of human rights around the world. “At my confirmation hearing, I promised that the Biden-Harris administration would repudiate those unbalanced views. We do so decisively today,” he said.

Although those words sound boilerplate, they put some religious freedom activists on edge. For starters, the activists point out that the horrific genocides of the last century all had religious persecution at their core. They find it ominous that some religious freedom programs have already been canceled or put on hold in the first few months of the Biden administration.

“This is a major shift away from international religious freedom – moving away from even calling it religious freedom,” said Nina Shea, who serves as the director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, a conservative foreign-policy think tank. “It’s more of a watered down freedom of belief or religion, and equating religion with belief, which is very dangerous because that would mean you have a right to believe what you want to believe but you may not be allowed to practice it in a public square.”

Downplaying religious freedom, Shea added, negates 22 years of U.S. public policy forged since President Bill Clinton signed into law the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which cemented a U.S. commitment to promoting religious freedom as a foreign policy priority. That law also created the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, or USCIRF, as a way to promote independent policy recommendations.

Any effort to diminish the role of religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy is particularly “misguided,” Shea argues, just weeks after the U.S. joined the European Union in sanctioning Chinese officials over the forced labor and imprisonment of an estimated 1 million Uighur Muslims. Pope Francis’s trip to Iraq in early March also highlighted the struggle Christians and Yezidis have faced rebuilding their communities after the ISIS genocide.

Sen. Ted Cruz, an outspoken advocate for religious liberty at home and abroad, is so concerned about USAID’s hold on key projects that he submitted written questions on the topic to Power after her first confirmation hearing.

Others have pointed to a recent tweet by the USAID Middle East bureau highlighting women’s history month and a video of an interview with Rita Stephen; the tweet says Stephen serves as a regional coordinator and liaison for the office of “Equity and Diverse Communities in the Middle East and North Africa,” an apparent purging of the word “religious” from the title. During the Trump administration, the office was known as the “Religious and Ethnic Communities Office.”

Other religious freedom advocates caution that it’s too early in the Biden administration to draw conclusions. They are urging patience and expressing some faith in Blinken, who while speaking up for persecuted minorities has recalled how he was shaped by his father-in-law’s survival during the Holocaust. Last Friday, during Holocaust Remembrance Day, Blinken used the occasion to take the State Department to task for not allowing Jews to seek refuge in the United States during the Nazi era; he also called for actions against those suffering persecution today. “We remember not only what happened, but also how it was allowed to happen,” he said.

During his Senate confirmation hearing, Blinken also voiced unqualified support for the Trump administration’s 11th-hour determination that China’s treatment of the Uighur populace amounted to genocide. Biden also has yet to name an ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, these advocates note, and the choice will signal how seriously he plans to take the issue.

Farahnaz Ispahani, a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and a senior fellow at the Religious Freedom Institute, remains hopeful that the new administration will maintain, and perhaps even strengthen, the U.S. religious freedom agenda. As an immigrant and a Muslim woman of color, Ispahani has praised Biden for overturning Trump’s ban on travel from several African and majority-Muslim countries.

In a recent op-ed for The Hill newspaper, Ispahani urged Biden to include religious freedom in the upcoming global summit for democracy planned for later this year. “Adding protection of religious freedom to the list of priorities would attract support from American conservatives, help strengthen the democracy and human rights agenda in foreign policy and contribute to Biden’s goal of diminishing polarization at home,” she wrote.

Despite these calls for patience, there’s a reason many activists and former Trump administration officials are bracing for an unraveling of their religious freedom work. Promoting religious liberty is embedded in U.S. law, but State Department and USAID funding decisions over the last decade often haven’t made it a priority.

Even after the Obama administration finally declared ISIS’ atrocities in Northern Iraq genocide, there was internal State Department resistance to providing assistance to the decimated communities to help them rebuild. Some in the foreign-policy community argued that all refugees should be given equal treatment whether they were victims of genocide or not. While the debate played out in Washington, members of the Yezidi and Christian communities who weren’t killed by ISIS fled with the refugees, only returning in large numbers over the last few years when the Trump administration directed U.S. tax dollars to rebuild their homes and infrastructure. The communities still remain under constant threat from Iranian militias.

From the early days of the Trump presidency, Mike Pence and top administration political appointees, including Mike Pompeo and USAID administrator Mark Green, fought against United Nations red tape that made it difficult to direct U.S. money to victims of genocide and religious atrocities, including ISIS victims in Iraq and the Rohingya communities in Burma.

With the help of Pompeo and Sam Brownback, Trump’s ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, the administration also elevated the issue of religious freedom by hosting annual international summits highlighting the plight of persecuted religious minorities around the world. The summits, held in 2018 and 2019, led to greater news coverage and awareness about numerous abuses worldwide. Last summer, the Associated Press and the Wall Street Journal uncovered new horrifying aspects of China’s persecution of Uighurs, including forced abortions and sterilizations to curb its Muslim population.

“Advancing religious freedom became a foreign policy priority for us when we talked to the world,” Samah Norquist, who served as the chief adviser for international religious freedom to the USAID administrator at the end of the Trump administration, told RealClearPolitics. “It wasn’t just rhetoric – not like ‘Yes, we are from America and we care about freedom.’ USAID responded to genocide, built its partnership and engagement with local voices and leaders and worked with other country donors to respond to those faith communities who face atrocities and discrimination around the world.”

There was a lot of internal pushback, as there was with a lot of Trump initiatives, Norquist recalls, but she credits Green’s leadership and the bipartisan respect and goodwill he cultivated in helping push some of policy changes through, especially when it came to expanding partnerships with faith-based groups operating among the local communities impacted by the persecution.

Brownback’s annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom has now been handed off to other countries to host, as he and others planned, a sort of Olympics-style model of hosting aimed at engaging countries around the world. Brazil is planning to hold the international summit in Rio de Janeiro in November after Poland hosted a virtual version last fall because of the COVID pandemic.

Now a private citizen, Brownback and Gayle Manchin, who chairs the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom, will host a separate religious freedom summit this July in Washington, D.C. That event will feature 40 civil society and religious groups representing nearly all the world’s religions. But such gatherings are limited in terms of their impact without the ability to direct U.S. funds to key projects around the world.

The groups are particularly worried that USAID projects that partner with faith-based groups are in jeopardy. The Trump administration fought internal agency resistance to provide funding to faith-based groups, building on a precedent from another Republican administration. President George W. Bush led a successful $15 billion effort to combat AIDS in Africa by working with governments, foundations, non-governmental organizations as well as churches and other religious entities throughout the continent.

Yet, at the start of the Trump administration, there was so much bureaucratic resistance within the State Department to partner with faith-based organizations that in 2018 Congress passed the Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act, requiring direct U.S. assistance to these persecuted communities, including through faith-based programs. The measure was so uncontroversial and had so much bipartisan backing that it passed in the House on a voice vote and in the Senate by unanimous consent.

Until Congress changes the law, the agencies must continue to direct funds to faith-based groups operating in Iraq, but in mid-March, a top USAID official in the Bureau for Development, Democracy and Innovation asked acting USAID Administrator Gloria Steele to pause all strategic religious engagement and international religious freedom sector meetings, as well as the larger international religious freedom implementation plan, until receiving guidance from the Biden administration. In recommending the pause, the official said it would provide the opportunity to ensure that USAID’s engagement with faith-based partners fits the president’s definition of human rights.

Pooja Jhunjhunwala, USAID’s acting spokesperson, said the pause for a review is normal practice at the onset of a new administration and would not necessarily result in canceled or defunded religious-freedom programs. She also noted that the name of the Religious and Ethnic Communities Office has not changed and that the tweet referring to the office as the “Equity and Diverse Communities in the Middle East and North Africa” was simply wrong, although she provided no explanation for the error.

“[USAID’s] Partnership Center is doing a comprehensive review of the agency’s work on religious engagement and religious freedom, looking to build on past administration efforts and meeting the needs and opportunities in this new season,” she said in a statement to RCP.

Jhunjhunwala also pointed to Biden’s executive order from mid-February creating an interagency Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships as a demonstration of the administration’s commitment to prioritizing faith-based engagement. In early March, Biden appointed Adam Nicholas Phillips, a pastor of a self-described “open, active and inclusive Christ-centered” church in Portland, Ore., as the director of the center. Jhunjhunwala described him as the agency’s “lead on engaging faith-based civil society groups for diplomatic, international development and humanitarian work around the world.”

Despite this stated commitment, some religious freedom projects in the works at the end of the Trump administration were canceled at the beginning of the Biden administration – including one aimed at solving a problem Samantha Power highlighted during her Senate confirmation hearing in late March. Power testified that the biggest challenge international human rights and genocide investigations face is securing unfettered access to the communities impacted without local militia impeding the probes.

She was responding to a question by Democratic Sen. Chris Coons about how best to document the recent atrocities in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region. But weeks earlier, two days into the Biden administration, USAID rejected a project planned in Nigeria dedicated to providing a detailed accounting of Christian and Muslim persecution by jihadist terrorists Boko Haram and militant Fulani herdsmen and others. Hundreds of Christians and Muslims opposed to Islamic extremism have been killed in central Nigeria over the last year.

Local Christian bishops had appealed to USAID to support the project, which was to be funded through USAID’s local solutions support program, created through legislation and authored by Democratic Sen. Pat Leahy .

“We heard that it was well along the way and was approved at the highest levels,” said Shea, who was involved in organizing the project. “We got a letter two days after the inauguration that it was suddenly rejected.”

Jhunjhunwala declined to directly comment on the decision to reject the Nigeria documentation program. A knowledgeable source said it was twice determined that the proposal did not meet technical requirements “necessary to pursue the concept further.” No one at USAID provided an explanation for what this means.

Instead, Jhunjhunwala emphasized that “religious freedom remains a priority in our engagement and programming” in Nigeria. Between 2020 and January 2021, she said, USAID’s mission in Nigeria awarded five grants totaling $500,000 to faith-oriented organizations, four of which are Nigerian and all of which were signed under the Trump administration. And, she said, the agency is planning more religious-freedom focused community-based programming over the next year. She also noted an additional five grants that were provided directly to “faith-based or faith-oriented” organizations in Nigeria, although she didn’t provide the dollar amount of the grants.

In recent weeks, USAID also is holding up a Uighur cultural preservation project in Central Asia and has frozen millions of dollars of aid aimed at addressing inter-religious tensions in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nagorno-Karabakh, knowledgeable sources report.

While current law prevents changes from being made to religious freedom programs In Iraq without notifying Congress about a shift in funds, critics say the contracts are being slow-walked. In early January, Trump administration officials agreed to provide additional funds to an existing contract to help refurbish and build housing units for displaced Yezidis in Kocho, Iraq. After an external lobbying effort on behalf of the contract, USAID announced the assistance award last week but didn’t say whether the entire $5 million originally slated for the project will still be allocated. The agency also didn’t disclose whether it still plans to move forward with a separate $800,000 project to transform a current school building – where ISIS terrorists rounded up Yezidis and executed them – into a formal museum.