USAID and Knights of Columbus in agreement to help Mid East Christians

shutterstock 1024300354 The dome of a church profained by IS in the Christian city of Qaraqoosh, Nov. 2016. | cosimoattanasio/Shutterstock

The Knights of Columbus have signed an agreement with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to cooperate in assisting religious minorities in the Middle East rebuild their communities following the persecution and genocide of the Islamic State.

The joint effort was agreed in a memorandum of understanding announced Oct. 12 and will begin in Iraq, before being rolled out throughout the region.

Andrew Walther, Vice President for Strategic Communications for the Knights of Columbus, said that the agreement was an important advance in helping the Christian communities who had suffered under IS.

"This memorandum is important in itself," he told CNA. "But it is also illustrative of a wider engagement with, commitment to, and prioritization of persecuted communities in the region by USAID - not only Christians but Yazidis, Shi'a Muslims and others."

Carl Anderson, the Supreme Knight and head of the Catholic fraternal order, released a statement Friday welcoming the news.

"The Knights of Columbus is pleased to work together with USAID in the important work being done to stabilize these communities and hope that our joint and combined efforts will bring hope and concrete improvement to the situation confronting minority communities targeted by ISIS," Anderson said.

"Vice President Mike Pence and [USAID] Administrator Mark Green are to be commended for working to ensure that these communities are not overlooked by American government assistance."

USAID plans to work closely with the Knights, and local faith and community leaders, to deliver aid rapidly to persecuted communities, according the memorandum signed Friday.

"Crucially," the document states, "the support will flow directly to individuals and households most in need of help."

In the agreement, USAID recognized "the unique expertise and relationships of trust that organizations like Knights of Columbus has forged with local and faith-based organizations in the region."

According to the memorandum, partnerships with the Knights and similar organizations will form a crucial part of delivering the Genocide Recovery and Persecution Response Program in the Middle East announced last year by Vice President Mike Pence.

Andrew Walther explained that these partnership had historical roots.

"Almost exactly 100 years ago there was a real public-private partnership in the United States to help ensure the survival of Christian communities being persecuted throughout the Ottoman Empire," he said.

"Under the Wilson administration, several organizations including, in a modest way, the Knights partnered with the government to deliver aid to these communities under threat. Reviving this historical cooperation will make our combined efforts that much more effective for the benefit of those Christians struggling to survive in their own land."

USAID is responsible for delivering the program and currently has more than $195 million in planned and active efforts to support rebuilding in northern Iraq.

In addition to advocacy work on behalf of persecuted minorities, the Knights of Columbus Charities has committed more than $20 million in aid to the region since 2014. An additional $5 million is expected to be committed over the next six months.

Two years ago, the Knights produced a report detailing IS atrocities in the region. That report was instrumental in successive U.S. secretaries of state designating the treatment of religious minorities in the region by Islamic State as genocide.

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The memorandum also committed both organizations to "enhance our collective response to vulnerable populations to help preserve and promote pluralism in the Middle East" through assistance to a number of communities hit hard by IS, including Yazidis, Christians, Shi'a Muslims, and other ethnic and religious communities.

"Our work with USAID is intended to help these populations survive and prosper in lands they have called home for centuries, and even millennia. We cannot allow ISIS to succeed in driving them out," Anderson said.

USAID has partnered with religious communities and organizations in carrying out its work since its establishment in the 1960s.

Aid to the persecuted Christian communities in Iraq was one of the central focuses of the the Knight of Columbus' annual convention held in August.

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