Why International Religious Freedom Is Important to the Work of USAID

By Arielle Del Turco

In his first few months in office, President Biden’s administration has either canceled or put on hold some of the religious freedom programs conducted by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). This is deeply unfortunate. The Biden administration must solidify the promotion of international religious freedom in its development projects. Doing so will serve the mission of USAID, which is to “promote and demonstrate democratic values abroad, and advance a free, peaceful, and prosperous world.”

At the 2018 Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom hosted by the State Department, former USAID Administrator Mark Green highlighted religious freedom’s vital importance to efforts promoting tolerance and pluralism. He touted the agency’s work in Northern Iraq, where USAID helped Christian and Yazidi communities in their recovery from ISIS’ genocide. Since October 2017, U.S. government funds have helped rebuild schools, hospitals, power stations, and other assets for ISIS survivors who wish to return home and restore their communities.

The Trump administration introduced new policy measures that granted USAID the ability to aid Christians and other minorities directly. Previously, the U.S. had donated funds through the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), which ran refugee camps infiltrated by ISIS sympathizers posing a serious threat to Christian and Yazidi survivors of ISIS.

Local and faith-based partners are often best equipped to understand the unique needs of their communities. In particular, engaging with religious leaders can offer valuable insights into the challenges faced by those USAID seeks to help. Towards the end of the Trump administration, USAID Acting Administrator John Barsa championed the New Partnerships Initiative (NPI). Through this program, USAID cooperated with smaller nongovernmental organizations and faith-based organizations to quickly and efficiently assist local communities. There is more that USAID can do to serve religious communities in need around the world, including those that have endured persecution or genocide.

And yet, in January, USAID rejected a $2 million program that would have helped faith-based organizations in Nigeria document the frequent atrocities committed by Boko Haram, Islamic State in West Africa (ISWAP), and other groups hostile to religious believers. Documentation is essential to human rights work, and cutting this program hinders the work of activists seeking to understand the extent of the problem.

President Trump’s Executive Order on advancing international religious freedom, signed June 2, 2020, required that the Secretary of State develop a plan to prioritize international religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy and foreign assistance programs. Crafting and implementing a strategy to continue integrating international religious freedom into USAID’s programs is a significant way the Biden administration can build on USAID’s success in recent years.

The Executive Order also provides at least $50 million in funding per fiscal year for programs that promote international religious freedom. This is the floor for possible funding, not the ceiling. USAID and the State Department should be transparent about where these funds go and seek the recommendations of civil society groups and local partners who can better identify areas of need.

Providing humanitarian funds to persecuted Christians who live in hostile contexts is essential to preserving Christianity in those regions of the world. In Iraq, Christianity is nearly extinct. The denominations in Iraq represent some of the oldest in the world, and it would be devastating for the region to lose the culture, languages, and persistent faith of these ancient Christian communities. Efforts to provide support and opportunities to these communities are critical.

Religious freedom and the absence of religiously motivated conflict and persecution have been found to correlate with economic growth. International business expert Ilan Alon argues that there are two main reasons for this correlation. First, religious freedom is a building block for other core political freedoms that strengthen democracy, including freedom of speech and association. Second, religious freedom supports religious plurality and diversity. This attracts, rather than repels, talented individuals of all faiths and allows them to participate fully in the economy without discrimination.

American foreign policy experts operating in the secular context of the State Department could easily make the mistake of thinking that the rest of the world is similarly secular. In reality, the world is increasingly religious. Over the last two decades, every inhabited continent except for Western Europe has seen belief in God increase. At the same time, religious persecution is on the rise. A recent Aid to the Church in Need report found that two-thirds of the world’s population lives in countries where religious freedom is violated. American foreign aid would do well not to ignore the religious context in which it operates and should work towards solutions that promote religious freedom and diversity.

If the U.S. government wants to establish effective development programs that will have a long-term impact on the societies they are seeking to strengthen, then the promotion of religious freedom must be a part of its game plan. As Samantha Power takes the reins at USAID, she should acknowledge religious freedom as a crucial means of fulfilling the agency’s mission of demonstrating democratic values and advancing a free, peaceful, and prosperous world.


Arielle Del Turco serves as Assistant Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at Family Research Council, where she is responsible for international religious freedom policy and advocacy efforts.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Christian Concern or any of its affiliates.

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