Enshrined in the First Amendment, freedom of religion has long been seen as a pillar of American society. In 2020, the Trump Administration solidified through an Executive Order the prioritization of religious freedom not just at home, but also abroad, and codified advancing religious freedom as a foreign policy priority of the United States. The United States Agency of International Development (USAID) is front and center in implementing this initiative, and proving that strategic religious engagement can advance international development along the way.
From October 5-8th, USAID held a four-day virtual summit to report on their strategic religious engagement agenda, as well as to provide an update on progress already made in the arena. The agency has developed an international religious freedom agenda under the guidance of the “3PS”: principles, policy, and practice, on which will later be elaborated.
“We are grateful for the President’s leadership in advancing religious freedom around the world, and we are honored USAID will play a critical role in the implementation of the Executive Order he signed earlier today,” USAID Acting Administrator John Barsa said in a statement released June 2, the day President Trump signed the Executive Order on international religious freedom.
Barsa cited nexuses of international development and religious freedom around the world today, including the genocide committed by ISIS against Christians and Yazidis in Northern Iraq and the ethnic cleansing of the Muslim Rohingya in Burma.
59 years after its establishment, veterans at USAID have realized that issues of religious freedom in international development and humanitarian assistance cannot be ignored. In fact, the two in many instances go hand in hand.
Genocide against Christians and Yazidis in Iraq, perpetrated by ISIS, is an example. In his original statement, Barsa pointed to USAID’s Genocide Recovery and Persecution Response in Northern Iraq. The founder of that initiative, Samah Norquist, is now Barsa’s lead in managing USAID’s contribution to the president’s international religious freedom order.
Although the official order was signed only this summer, USAID has focused on religious freedom since the beginning of the Trump Administration. In fact, since 2017, USAID has provided over $370 million for activities that support religious and ethnic minorities across the Middle East.
This focus has proved fruitful and effective in many ways. In a May 2020 policy paper, USAID disseminated information about their work on religious freedom in the Middle East since 2017. The paper outlines the $50 million the agency has invested in workforce development, civil society capacity building, cultural heritage preservation, peaceful dialogue skills, and vulnerability and needs assessments for religious and ethnic minorities in the region.
Notably, the agency has begun to focus on genocide and persecution prevention. USAID has done so by conducting assessments and pilot interventions to identify at-risk communities and areas where access to basic services for religious and ethnic minorities are limited or inequitable, as outlined in the aforementioned policy paper.
As highlighted in this week’s strategic religious engagement summit, USAID will track and evaluate its international religious freedom work under the guidance of the “3Ps”: principles, policy, and practice. A big focus in this new initiative will be put on engaging faith-based organizations in partner countries.
In accordance to the “principles” guideline, the agency is developing guiding principles to share with donors, decision makers, and practitioners on how to most effectively partner with religious actors and organizations on the ground.
Under the “policy” and “practice” guidelines, USAID is monitoring its plans for strategic religious engagement, and importantly, suspending projects that prove to be ineffective in developing and protecting religious and ethnic minorities.
USAID’s mission under the Trump Administration is the “journey to self-reliance.” Through USAID’s strategic religious engagement plan, in coordination with the President’s order on international religious freedom, the agency believes it will be able to partner with new, underutilized partners in communities and implement innovative ideas to enrich the lives of religious and ethnic minorities in a way never done before.
No person can be self-reliant if they are perpetually under attack for something as fundamental to their being as religious faith. The United States’ focus on promoting religious freedom worldwide should be an encouragement and source of pride for us all. And in protecting and equipping religious minorities in vulnerable areas, the United States moves one step forward in promoting human rights, dignity, and the flourishing of all communities.