How Middle Eastern Christians View the Turks and Kurds

Image: Lefteris Pitarakis / AP
Clergy representing minority communities in Turkey gathered Sunday in a monastery in southeastern Turkey to pray for Turkish soldiers fighting in the cross-border operation against Syrian Kurdish fighters.

As reports circulated that Turkey had violated its five-day pause in operations against the Kurds on the Syrian border, President Recep Tayyip Erdoan’s rhetoric intensified. If Kurdish fighters did not withdraw from their positions, as agreed between Erdogan and President Donald Trump, Turkey would “crush their heads.”

The front now appears quiet as Turkey has secured its “safe zone” in cooperation with Russia.

In America, as reported in the press, Christian opinion has been almost universal in its condemnation. But the Christian landscape in the Middle East, home to the oldest and some of the most enduring persecuted traditions in the faith, offers a complex array of responses.

CT has previously covered anti-Turkish sentiment from the Syriac, Assyrian, and Protestant communities of the region.

But there is an underreported—and contested—pro-Turkey and anti-Kurdish contingent as well.

Arameans:

“President Trump is right on Syria!” stated Johny Messo, president of the World Council of Arameans, in a press release. “These ‘heroes’ have oppressed vulnerable Arameans, taken their innocent lives, Kurdified their lands, and still use a tiny Christian group as their mouthpiece.”

The Arameans, though an ancient expression of Christianity, represent a 20th-century revival of identity tied to the ancient biblical land of Aram. Communities exist in Syria, Turkey, and elsewhere in the region, and have been recognized by Israel.

While the West has rallied behind the democratic Syrian enclave that permits religious freedom, Messo says what it commonly called Kurdistan is actually ancient Christian territory, taken over.

When Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces enter a village, they raise the flags of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), defined as a terrorist entity by the United States. They have kidnapped Christians and seized their lands, says Messo. And by provoking Turkey, they are bringing additional suffering upon all—including local Christian communities.

“As the indigenous people of Southeast Turkey and Northeast Syria, we call upon the PKK to end its violent struggle for independence,” Messo stated, “so that Arameans, Kurds, Arabs, and Turks can work together on a mutually enriching coexistence between different ethnicities, religions, and languages.”

Syriacs and Assyrians:

The Syriac Catholic archbishop of Al Hasakah-Nisibi, one of the cities where fleeing Christians have taken refuge, agrees with his anti-Kurdish stance.

“For years, I have been saying that the Kurds are trying to eliminate the Christian presence in this part of Syria,” Jacques Behnam Hindo told Aid to the Church in Need last year. His particular concern was the Kurdish effort to change the curriculum of local Christian schools—in operation since the 1930s—or to shut them down, as happened in three cities in 2018.

Syriac has traditionally been associated with language and liturgy, rather than ethnicity. Also based in Turkey and Syria, some Syriacs identify as Arameans, others as Assyrians. This latter group is strong in Iraq, with communities in Iran.

From Iraq, where the constitution grants Kurds an autonomous region in the north (bordering Syria, Turkey, and Iran), one influential voice prefers not to take sides.

“We don’t want Turks, we don’t want the PKK, and we call for international protection,” said Ashur Eskrya, president of the Assyrian Aid Society.

“The Turks will make things unstable, and Christians will flee. But the PKK will change the demography and not allow us to live with our heritage.”

Historically, Turkey has been blamed for the Armenian genocide that took place more than a century ago, and many other Christian communities have complained of its Ottoman Empire and nationalist beginnings. And back then, the Turks were allied with Kurds.

“The Kurds do have a history of genocidal acts towards Assyrians that needs to be recognized,” said Peter Burns, government relations director with In Defense of Christians. “But that does not mean we should simply side with whomever is pointing guns at Kurds in the moment, as in some cases they align with Christian interests against common enemies.”

The Assyrians are a “passionate” sect within regional Christianity, Burns wrote in an analysis for Providence, a Christian foreign policy journal. They trace their ancestry to the biblical Assyrian Empire, and their faith to the preaching of Thomas and Thaddeus, Jesus’ disciples.

But other Christian subgroups—such as Chaldeans and Syriacs—chafe at Assyrian insistence on a Christian homeland, preferring not to get caught up in Assyrian nationalist political ambitions. And according to Burns, Aramean is a controversial term created in modern times to encompass the broader Christian community in the region. Most Christian sects do not embrace it as their ethnic identity.

In the fight against ISIS, some Christian militias have aligned with the Kurds, such as the Nineveh Plains Guards. But one in particular, the Babylon Brigades, has preferred Iran.

Official Leaders of Christian Confessions in Turkey:

Crossing into Anatolia—the biblical Asia Minor—other ancient Christian confessions have come out in favor of the Turkish incursion. While citizens of Turkey, many Christians there identify with their historic ethnic and church affiliations.

“We pray that Operation Peace Spring, which aims to end terrorism and ensure the security of the borders, will continue in accordance with its purpose, and establish peace and security as soon as possible,” Sahak Masalyan, head of the Armenian Patriarchate of Turkey, told the state-run Anadolu Agency. “Unfortunately, it’s not possible to establish peace with a peaceful path every time.”

Along with the Armenians are foundations representing the Syriac and Assyrian churches in Turkey, which released an almost identical statement.

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Source: Christianity Today