Last week President Trump abruptly announced that American soldiers would be leaving Kurdish-controlled territory in Syria. The news shocked the US military. It was also an unwelcome surprise to Kurdish fighters, whom the US had backed in the fight against ISIS.
The announcement was good news for Syria's neighbor Turkey who have long fought the Kurdish guerrilla group known as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK has waged a decades-long insurgency inside Turkey and both Turkey and the US consider it a terrorist organization.
Shortly after Trump’s announcement, Turkish troops began a military assault on the Kurdish-controlled parts of Syria. Many of the Christians that live in that area have fled to Armenia, says Charlie Costa, who pastors a congregation in Beirut and actively plants churches in the Middle East.
“But of course, that empties the area of any Christian witness, at least theoretically or on a human level,” said Costa. “It leaves the place without a witness for Christ. Even those who support the President were disappointed with that because the view in the Middle East is always that America protects Christians.”
Costa joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and editor in chief Mark Galli to learn why Kurds are coming to Christ, the community’s long history of persecution, and how Middle Eastern Christians view American Christians.
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Highlights from Episode #182
Can you explain who the Kurds are? And where do they live?
Charlie Costa: The Kurds basically are a group of Iranian tribes that live in an area that is between Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq. They came to that area because it's a mountainous area. They're not Arab and they're not Persians and they're not Turks.
The Kurds are the #4 ethnicity or ethnic group in the Middle East. There about 30 million Kurds in total, and they speak the Kurdish language, which does of vary slightly from one area to the other (as English would vary between England and the US, or English would vary between US states in the North and South).
Why do the Kurds not have their own country?
Charlie Costa: If you study the history of the Kurds, you will see that they have tried to have their own homeland for hundreds of years. You will read about different rebel leaders that have tried to establish a Kurdish homeland. And even after the First World War, you will see that the Allies marked an area on the map that would become a Kurdish homeland. But three years later they backed out on that promise and the Kurds were back at square one.
You also have to remember that the Kurds have been through several genocides, especially at the hands of the Turks. They’ve been dispersed and displaced. So Turkey is in control of one area of the Kurdish homeland, Iran is in control of another, Iraq is in control of another, and Syria is also in control of a portion, too.
This way, they quashed any hopes for the Kurds to have a home.
Is this a group that is traditionally Sunni or Shia? Or what religion did they traditionally practice?
Charlie Costa: They are predominantly Sunni Muslims, although there are a few Shiites. They became Sunni under the Ottoman Empire which was the largest power in the Middle East. The Kurds were under that rule and so they went into the Sunni Faith. Although they tend to be a little more relaxed about their faith then the Turks or others in the region.
Let's talk about Christian Kurds. About how many Kurds are Christians? And what background can you give us about Christianity among the Kurds?
Charlie Costa: No one has an accurate statistic of how many Kurds are Christians because they are coming to Christ in good numbers.
Whoever became a Christian converted. If there are any historic Christian congregations in the area, then they would have migrated there. They're not originally Kurds unless they come from a Kurdish family that converted at some point, and then they are the children or the grandchildren of that individual who came to Christ. But otherwise, they're all converts because mostly they are Sunnis.
How do you feel President Trump's decision to remove US troops will affect the Christian population in the Middle East, especially among the Kurds?
Charlie Costa: I usually tell people in the West that the only person who understands the complexities of the situation in the Middle East region is God. Obviously these atrocities are because of the sinful nature of man. But at the same time, we cannot deny the fact that these incidents also opened the door to the Gospel. When things like that happen, people are softened or look back to God. This is part of the reason that we see ministry very much alive in the region of Kurdistan.
I think the statement by Franklin Graham against Trump removing US troops from the area reflects his disappointment because of the type of ministry that Franklin has in the in Northern Iraq, in Kurdistan. Samaritan's Purse, and other ministries like it, have a very vibrant ministry. A lot of people have come to Christ because of those ministries. I think Franklin's reaction was not just a reaction to a political event, but about something that would be interrupting the ministry of reaching out to the Kurds. And the Kurds seem to be open to the Gospel and do not react the same way other ethnic groups react to the Gospel.
A lot of the Christians have been evacuated by the Armenians, especially as things have gotten tenser in Syria. But of course, that empties the area of any Christian witness, at least theoretically or on a human level. It leaves the place without a witness for Christ. Even those who support the President were disappointed with that because the view in the Middle East is always that America protects Christians.
What has been very disappointing, is the view that we are hearing repeatedly on the news in the Middle East: that America abandons its allies. The message being spread here is don't ally yourselves with America, because at an opportune moment, for the interests of America, America will abandon you. And to me, that's extremely disappointing.
As Franklin Graham mentioned, the Kurds have been protecting Christians in the area. What's the actual threat to Christians?
Charlie Costa: Well, there is a lot of fear. There is a camp with about 70,000 in it, and about 10,000 of them were ISIS fighters. Now that the US troops have been removed, not only is there war, but Turkey has also lost control over that camp. So there is a valid fear of the spread of ISIS. But there isn’t much fear of persecution of Christians specifically.
The persecution of Christians is an elective thing for Turkey. They use it for political manipulation. Sometimes they persecute, sometimes they don't. If it is politically helpful to them, they will do it. What they did in the past was basically try to keep Christians under control rather than persecute.
In general, Christians in the Middle East are not political. They try to stay on the downlow, try to mind their own business, and do their own thing.
In Syria, for instance, churches are under the control over the government. You can talk about religion, your faith, go to church—all that is under the protection of the government. The minute you start talking about politics, then they start frowning on you.
The current regime, religiously and philosophically, is very much influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood. So Kurdish rule would be much better for Christians. But that’s mostly out of principle: Minorities protect minorities.
But look, politics is dirty. We have to understand that. We do different things even in the West. We might not kill people, but we kill their reputations. We may not kill people, but we destroy them financially. All of it is an abuse of human rights.
Can you give us a sense of how Christians throughout the region regard American Christians? What are the different opinions that you’ve encountered?
Charlie Costa: The first thing that I see is that they feel that American Christianity is literally helping Christianity survive all over the world. By supporting missions, by supporting relief programs in different countries, through missionaries, and through churches, Americans whether they know it or not, are helping to sustain Christianity on the human-level.
However, there is not only a sense of gratitude but also a sense of disappointment. Disappointment because we feel that American Christians are sometimes naive. Politicians can sell them anything by supporting what they say with a verse of scripture.
There’s the view that sometimes American Christians are also gullible. That's the impression people have of some American Christians: that you can sell them anything.
No one takes a stand for the weak, for the broken, for the hurt. And it's not because American Christians are bad. No, it's because of what they're fed through the media and they don't read what they need to read. They continue to be sometimes naive.
Be smart. Don't just go with the flow. Stand up for people that Jesus would have stood up for. Thankfully, I think that Americans are growing in this area because of situations like this one happening around the world.
They're becoming more informed, but it's taken a long time.