Ad­vo­cates worry about re­li­gious mi­nori­ties

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY CHRISTO­PHER VONDRACEK

Chris­tian evan­gel­i­cals and re­li­gious ad­vo­cates are sharply crit­i­ciz­ing Pres­i­dent Trump’s de­ci­sion to pull U.S. troops back from north­ern Syria, warn­ing that it has cre­ated a se­cu­rity vac­uum on the ground that puts re­li­gious mi­nori­ties in the fir­ing line and could lead to a resur­gence of Islamist Turk­ish in­flu­ence and the re­vival of the rad­i­cal Is­lamic State move­ment.

Re­li­gious con­ser­va­tives who have been among Mr. Trump’s most loyal de­fend­ers were among the most crit­i­cal of the U.S. mil­i­tary draw­down in Syria, which was fol­lowed al­most im­me­di­ately by a Turk­ish in­cur­sion into north­ern Syria tar­get­ing U.S.-al­lied Kur­dish forces.

Many fear Turkey plans a sec­tar­ian cleansing of its new Syr­ian buf­fer zone, driv­ing out Kurds and Chris­tian com­mu­ni­ties and re­set­tling mil­lions of mostly Arab Syr­ian refugees who fled to Turkey to es­cape Syria’s eight-year civil war. Ac­cord­ing

to the Bri­tish-based Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights, at least two of the first eight civil­ian ca­su­al­ties from the first day of fight­ing Wed­nes­day were Chris­tian Assyr­ian res­i­dents of the city of Qamishli.

“Chris­tians and oth­ers are ex­tremely wor­ried,” Bas­sam Ishak, po­lit­i­cal leader of the Syr­iac Chris­tian com­mu­nity, told the Catholic News Ser­vice in a phone in­ter­view. “The Turk­ish bomb­ing seems de­signed to push peo­ple out of their towns if, in fact, they man­age to es­cape alive.”

As news of the im­pend­ing pullout spread Mon­day, crit­i­cism be­gan to fly. For­mer Arkansas Gov. Mike Huck­abee called Mr. Trump’s de­ci­sion a “HUGE mis­take” on Twit­ter, and tel­e­van­ge­list Pat Robert­son de­clared on his show, “The 700 Club,” that Mr. Trump would be “in dan­ger of los­ing the man­date of heaven if he per­mits [the U.S. with­drawal] to hap­pen.”

John Ston­estreet, the host of Chris­tian ra­dio pro­gram “Break Point,” urged lis­ten­ers Wed­nes­day to con­tact the White House and tell the pres­i­dent to “stand by the Kurds,” who Mr. Ston­estreet said main­tain lands in north­ern Syria that are the “last-re­sort havens for per­se­cuted Yazidis and Chris­tians.”

Tony Perkins, chair­man of the U.S. Com­mis­sion on In­ter­na­tional Re­li­gious Free­dom, said the Turk­ish in­va­sion puts at risk a rare oa­sis of re­li­gious tol­er­ance. The Syr­ian Kurds have been widely praised for al­low­ing var­i­ous faiths to prac­tice their re­li­gion freely in land un­der their con­trol.

“Civil­ians in ter­ri­tory con­trolled by the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces (SDF), who rep­re­sent a di­verse group of re­li­gious and eth­nic com­mu­ni­ties, are now at dan­ger­ous risk of fall­ing vic­tim to the vi­o­lent chaos that Turkey’s in­cur­sion is likely to spark,” Mr. Perkins said in a state­ment.

Iraqi Chris­tians are brac­ing for a flood of re­li­gious refugees from Syria as the Turk­ish cam­paign pro­ceeds, said the Rev. Emanuel Youkhana, a priest of the Assyr­ian Church of the East.

“Def­i­nitely, many peo­ple will try to flee to Iraq, and the bor­ders are ex­pected to be open from the Iraqi side to in­no­cent civil­ians,” he told the Catholic News Ser­vice from north­ern Iraq.

As few as 10,000 eth­nic Yazidis may live in the Kur­dish re­gion, ac­cord­ing to a 2017 es­ti­mate from Yazda, a U.S.-based Yazidi ad­vo­cacy group. Ac­cord­ing to the U.S. gov­ern­ment, Chris­tians ac­count for about 10% of Syria’s pop­u­la­tion, though that num­ber has dwin­dled since the civil war erupted in 2011.

Coun­tries of con­cern

The U.S. Com­mis­sion on In­ter­na­tional Re­li­gious Free­dom said in a re­port that the State De­part­ment la­beled Syria as one of the “coun­tries of par­tic­u­lar con­cern,” with the most se­vere and per­sis­tent op­pres­sion of faith free­dom in the world. Turkey, un­der Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan’s in­creas­ingly au­thor­i­tar­ian rule, was placed on a watch list.

What re­mains of the Chris­tian and Yazidi com­mu­ni­ties is con­cen­trated in north­ern Syria, where the SDF and other forces re­sist­ing Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad re­tain some con­trol. But that con­trol may be in doubt. Re­ports Wed­nes­day said Turkey’s air force, on or­ders from Mr. Er­do­gan, has be­gun bomb­ing the vil­lage of Mishar­rafa in the Kurd-con­trolled re­gion.

Ac­counts of “mass panic” have wor­ried in­ter­na­tional re­li­gious lib­erty ob­servers who say they have seen this pat­tern be­fore.

In 2018, af­ter the Turk­ish of­fen­sive dubbed Op­er­a­tion Olive Branch cleared out the U.S.-backed lead­ers in the north­west­ern Syr­ian town of Afrin, re­ports said Islamist Syr­i­ans were forc­ing con­ver­sions of Yazidis, kid­nap­ping Yazidi women and girls, and loot­ing Kur­dish prop­er­ties. The Gate­stone In­sti­tute, a New York-based con­ser­va­tive think tank, re­ported in May 2018 of dis­cus­sions be­tween ji­hadi rebel groups and Turk­ish mil­i­tary lead­ers to es­tab­lish Is­lam-based Shariah law.

Mr. Perkins said U.S. and al­lied ac­tion was ur­gently needed to pre­vent “a re­peat of the dis­as­trous oc­cu­pa­tion of Afrin, Syria, by Turk­ish forces and their Syr­ian mili­tia al­lies since 2018, which has dis­placed be­lea­guered Kurds, Chris­tians, Yazidis and oth­ers.”

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has touted in­ter­na­tional re­li­gious free­dom as a top for­eign pol­icy goal and hosted a July sum­mit in Washington with rep­re­sen­ta­tives from more than 100 na­tions. Still, Mr. Trump has sought to end U.S. par­tic­i­pa­tion in what he calls “end­less wars” in the Mid­dle East and else­where.

A Wed­nes­day morn­ing state­ment to the press pool at the White House said Mr. Trump had made it clear to Mr. Er­do­gan that the U.S. does not “en­dorse this at­tack.”

“Turkey has com­mit­ted to pro­tect­ing civil­ians, pro­tect­ing re­li­gious mi­nori­ties, in­clud­ing Chris­tians, and en­sur­ing no hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis takes place — and we will hold them to this com­mit­ment,” Mr. Trump said in the state­ment.

A sec­ond worry is that thou­sands of hard­ened Is­lamic State fight­ers held in makeshift de­ten­tion cen­ters manned by the Kurds could es­cape or even be set free if their jail­ers are di­verted to fight the Turks.

The Is­lamic State “caliphate,” erad­i­cated in large part through the ef­forts of SDF fight­ers backed by U.S. and al­lied mil­i­tary support, prac­ticed an ex­treme and in­tol­er­ant form of Is­lam in the ar­eas it con­trolled.

“North­east Syria was a rel­a­tively free but frag­ile en­vi­ron­ment be­fore this dan­ger­ous in­cur­sion,” Gayle Manchin, vice chair of the U.S. Com­mis­sion on In­ter­na­tional Re­li­gious Free­dom, said in a state­ment Wed­nes­day. “There is now a se­ri­ous risk that Turkey’s of­fen­sive, and the likely re­de­ploy­ment of SDF troops to con­front it, could open the door to a mass es­cape of ISIS de­tainees or a dan­ger­ous resur­gence of the ter­ror­ist group in Syria and be­yond.”

Mr. Er­do­gan “says he is cre­at­ing a ‘safe haven’ in north­east Syria to bring Syr­ian refugees back,” Fa­ther Youkhana told CNS. “Ac­tu­ally, it is a de­mo­graphic change pol­icy by forc­ing Kurds, Chris­tians and Yazidis out and putting Sunni Mus­lims in their place.”

PULLING THE TRIG­GER: Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan strate­gized with De­fense Min­is­ter Hu­lusi Akar at the pres­i­den­tial palace in Ankara in the face of crit­i­cism from around the world.

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