Two decades ago, my family converted to Eastern Orthodoxy -- becoming part of the ancient Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church that is based on Damascus, located on the street called Straight (as in Acts 9:11).
From 2001-2004 we were members of a West Palm Beach, Fla., congregation in which most of the members had deep family roots into Syria, Lebanon or Palestine. Needless to say, they had stories to tell about the struggles of Christians in the Middle East.
Here in America, we tend to focus on the present. At the moment, that means talking about atrocities linked to the Islamic State. When you talk to Christians from the Middle East, the events of the present are always tied to centuries of oppression in the past. It's all one story.
Right now, the issue -- for many Christians, and members of other oppressed religious minorities -- is how to survive in refugee camps. After that they face the ultimate questions of whether to flee the region or attempt, once again, to return to their battered homes and churches and start over.
Thus, I noticed a story last week that received very little attention in the American mainstream press. Once again, we are dealing with a story that I first saw in an online analysis at The Atlantic. When I went looking for mainstream, hard-news coverage, I saw this short CNN report, and that was pretty much it. Here's the heart of that CNN story:
Washington (CNN) Vice President Mike Pence announced Wednesday night that the Trump administration will no longer fund "ineffective" programs run by the United Nations to help persecuted communities and will instead send money to such groups directly through the US Agency for International Development.
"President (Donald) Trump has ordered the State Department to stop funding ineffective relief efforts at the United Nations, ... and from this day forward, America will provide support directly to persecuted communities through USAID," Pence declared to extended applause while speaking in Washington to the group In Defense of Christians, which advocates for greater protection of Christians in the Middle East.
"While faith-based groups with proven track records and deep roots in the region are more than willing to assist, the United Nations continues to deny their funding requests," Pence said.
The vice president, who is deeply religious, urged his "fellow Christians" to support faith-based groups and private organizations.
Note the strange, vague little phrase that Pence is "deeply religious," backed by the scare-quoted "fellow Christians" reference. In other words, this move is just another attempt to play to the GOP base. Thus, this isn't really a story that matters.
Let me stress that my main point here is not a political one. Once again, I am fascinated with the positive role that The Atlantic -- by which I mean religion reporter Emma Green -- is playing these days, when it comes to coverage of basic news stories on this beat. Click here for a previous discussion of this phenomenon.
I guess I understand why many mainstream newsrooms avoided this topic.
I mean, this is a complicated story about religion.
On top of that, it's a story about religion on the other side of the planet.
That's strike one and strike two in the "getting religion" game.
Plus, this is a story about the Trump White House taking an action that pleased human-rights activists, yet also represented a punch at the United Nations. For many reporters, that combination is just plain confusing. Nothing to see here?
The report in The Atlantic -- even though it's short, as magazine-style features go -- contains some elements of analysis, of course, but it also offered readers lots of basic information. Here is a crucial section:
... Pence made it clear that the Trump administration is specifically focused on protecting Christians as part of its national-security agenda. “Christianity is under unprecedented assault in those ancient lands where it first grew,” the vice president said. “Across the wider Middle East, we can now see a future in many areas without a Christian faith. But tonight, I came to tell you: Help is on the way.” He specifically called out the “radical Islamic terrorists” who have perpetrated “vile acts of persecution animated by hatred for Christians and the Gospel of Christ.” ...
All of this is familiar territory for the Trump administration. Since the president took office, he has been promising to eradicate terrorism and eliminate the “beachhead of intolerance” created by radicalism. What was different here is that Pence promised a policy shift to accompany the rhetoric: Based on claims that the United Nations often denies funding requests from faith-based organizations and provides only “ineffective relief efforts,” the administration will now “provide support directly” through USAID.
Green provided crucial information describing the origins of this action. Yes, it made lots of political sense for this White House.
But note this interesting twist, noting that team Trump has not been walking its talk, even when dealing with promises made to conservative religious believers. (Yes, for some reason, it is a "conservative" thing to care about human rights when we are taking about the oppression of religious minorities in the Middle East.)
Despite the Trump administration’s previous promises to help persecuted religious minorities, it hasn’t necessarily backed its words with dollars. At a congressional briefing earlier this month, former Republican Representative Frank Wolf testified that “U.S. government assistance has not been forthcoming to Iraq’s Christian and Yezidi communities even though the president, vice president, Congress, and secretary of state have declared them victims of genocide.”
Even now, it’s not clear how much money is going to shift to USAID: The agency said in a statement only that “the administration is exploring options for how to better ensure our assistance effectively reaches vulnerable communities.”
Last spring, the Trump administration proposed a 27-percent, 10-year reduction to USAID’s operational budget. “The schizophrenia is that they don’t like international aid,” said Shaun Casey, the director of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University and former head of the State Department’s religious-outreach office. “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.”
Yes, in this context it appears that Catholic Relief Services, World Vision and the International Orthodox Christian Charities are "conservative" groups.
But never mind. If you want to know what is going on this with this story, it appears that the best place to get mainstream information is in an analysis piece at The Atlantic -- again.
Of course, one can also look for information at religious websites or those that specifically target religious events and trends. In this case, that means heading to Crux for an essay by the (this is an accurate cliche) omnipresent John L. Allen, Jr. He is the author of the 2013 book, "The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution."
This is not a Trump cheering section thing. Thus, this headline: "How to know if Trump is for real about helping Middle East Christians." In particular, note this:
All across the Middle East, Christians forced to flee by ISIS don’t take shelter in large-scale camps run by the UN or UN-backed NGOs where aid is typically delivered, fearing that Islamic militants could strike them there too. Moreover, there’s a basic “trust deficit” about living with Muslims in such close proximity, after many Christians watched their Muslim neighbors in Syria and Iraq loot their homes and stores, or even lash out at them physically, once the fighting started.
As a result, most displaced Christians are entirely dependent upon the Church.
In that light, a longtime expert on anti-Christian persecution told me in the wake of Pence’s pledge, which came at a dinner sponsored by “In Defense of Christians,” that it’s “by far the most positive thing this administration has said” in terms of its capacity to make a real difference.
However, he added a dose of caution that anyone familiar with the situation undoubtedly shares.
“It sounded great,” he said. “The question is, will it actually happen?”
Precisely. Believers in persecuted religious minorities in the Middle East have heard lots and lots of promises through the centuries.
It's a long, complicated, painful story. I'm glad The Atlantic wrote about it and I hope editors elsewhere have second thoughts about ignoring stories of this kind.