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USAID can maximize help to Middle East religious minorities

USAID can maximize help to Middle East religious minorities
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The Trump administration will begin directing U.S. dollars away from ineffective UN relief projects to on-the ground projects run by faith-based and private organizations approved by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) for persecuted religious minorities in the Middle East.

The change was announced Wednesday night during a speech by Vice President Pence at the solidarity dinner held as part of a three-day summit organized by In Defense of Christians. The Secret Service had told the audience to stay seated during the vice president's remarks, but those in attendance, many of whom live in countries ravaged by groups such as ISIS, greeted the announcement with a resounding standing ovation.

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The plight of religious minorities in many areas of the Middle East sadly continues. To be most effective, relief efforts should be led by local organizations. The administration's decision to move dollars through USAID-approved programs should not be viewed as an attack on the United Nations, but rather a logical approach to empowering those victimized by providing them the resources to rebuild their lives in their own land.

The case of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, for example, is of particular concern.  Conservative estimates are that 1 in every 3 people in Lebanon are displaced refugees from Syria.  By most accounts, this infusion of refugees was initially welcomed with incredible charity by the Lebanese people. But it has significantly overburdened the country's infrastructure and schools, and challenged an already troubled economy where over a third of the country's youth is unemployed. There are jarring real-life stories of Lebanese families who welcomed Syrian families into their homes for what they thought would be two or three months, but has turned into seven years.  

In order to prevent the forcible and potentially violent removal of Syrians from Lebanon, experts are promoting the creation of safe zones in Syria. Safe zones enable Syrian refugees to exercise their "right to return" as well as recognize the legitimate desire of the Lebanese to recover the equilibrium of their native population.  The House of Representatives is considering H. Res. 252 in order to promotes the restoration of security and stability in Lebanon by encouraging the creation of these safe zones.       

Safe zones can't be code words for simply sending Syrians back without a sincere concern for their well-being.  These safe zones must first and foremost be safe.  If not, the return of refugees might be simply sending them back to slaughter.  Second, while security will most certainly foster productivity, particular attention must also be given to ensure these safe zones are centers of economic development and empowerment for returning Syrians.  

Up until now, relief has necessarily been focused on providing shelter and meeting the basic human needs of those persecuted. Such relief cannot be eliminated entirely, especially during this transition period. But for Syrian refugees returning to their homeland, aid is needed for local groups focused on rebuilding Syria and its people. USAID has a proven track record of working with local entities in developing countries to address their unique needs themselves.

America's concern for the plight of persecuted religious minorities in the Middle East is consistent with our longstanding tradition of religious freedom, pluralism, and the defense of universal rights. Promoting and protecting the rights of Syrian refugees to return to their homeland, and directing U.S. relief aid to local groups working with them, will help secure internal stability for Syria and enable the people of that country to contribute to the stability of the region.  

Andrea Picciotti-Bayer is legal advisor for The Catholic Association Foundation.