DALLAS (AP) — Vice President Mike Pence announced Wednesday that he will travel to Israel and Egypt in late December, and said the U.S. will redirect funds aimed at helping persecuted Christians and other minorities away from the United Nations.
Pence discussed his plans at a religious dinner in Washington, where he stressed the Trump administration's commitment to helping Christian minority groups across the Middle East.
"President Trump has directed me to go to the Middle East in late December," Pence said in a keynote speech delivered at In Defense of Christians' annual solidarity dinner for Christians in the Middle East. He promised that, "one of the messages that I will bring on the president's behalf to leaders across the region is that now is the time to bring an end to the persecution of Christians and all religious minorities."
Pence also announced Wednesday that President Donald Trump had directed his State Department to pull U.S. funding from "ineffective" United Nations programs aimed at addressing persecuted and displaced religious minority communities, and redirect that money to programs run by the United States Agency for International Development, as well as faith-based groups and private organizations.
Pence complained that Christians and other persecuted people in the Middle East have not been getting the relief they need, and accused the U.N. of having "too often failed to help the most vulnerable communities, especially religious minorities. "
"From this day forward, America will provide support directly to persecuted communities through USAID," said Pence. "Our fellow Christians and all who are persecuted in the Middle East should not have to rely on multinational institutions when America can help them directly."
The State Department did not comment late Wednesday. The U.S. Mission to the United Nations referred all questions about the matter to the White House, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment about exactly which programs would be affected and how much money was at stake.
The Trump administration announced in April that it would be cutting off U.S. funding to the U.N. agency for reproductive health, accusing the agency of supporting population control programs in China that include coercive abortion. That decision cost the U.N. fund $32.5 million from the 2017 budget, the State Department said at the time.
In his remarks, Pence bemoaned an "unprecedented assault" on Christianity "in those ancient lands where it first grew," pointing to incidents like the Palm Sunday church bombings targeting Coptic Christians in Egypt and attacks on Christian communities in Syria.
He also pledged that, as the Islamic State group is evicted from its strongholds in the Middle East, the president was committed to helping persecuted minority groups "reclaim their lands, return to their homes, rebuild their lives, and replant the roots in their ancient place of birth."
The vice president's trip is expected to take him to Israel during Hanukkah, where he'll discuss the prospects for a Middle East peace agreement in separate meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Pence is also expected to address U.S. policy toward Iran and highlight Israel's space program — a favorite issue.
Pence is scheduled to meet with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and highlight U.S.-Egypt cooperation on security issues. He'll also meet with government and religious leaders to discuss combating the persecution of religious minorities, including Christians, in the broader Middle East.
Colvin reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Josh Lederman contributed to this report.