Advocates worry about religious minorities
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.