The airstrikes and artillery bombardments had barely begun in the Syrian city of Qamishli, just across the border from Turkey, when Bassam Ishak’s cell phone began ringing.
“People were so scared,” Ishak says. “They were telling me, ‘They are bombing us right now!'”
Ishak, a Syriac Christian leader, was in Erbil, Iraq, monitoring developments along the Syria-Turkey border.
“The attacks are widespread,” Ishak tells NPR by phone. “They are targeting residential areas in Qamishli, where people of all religious backgrounds live. We think this is a message to the Kurds and Christians there to leave, so Turkey can move refugees there. We think it’s a form of ethnic cleansing.”
By Thursday, Turkish ground forces had reportedly seized at least one village from Kurdish fighters in Syria, and the U.N. refugee agency reported that thousands of people were fleeing the Turkish advance.
Turkey launched its incursion into Syria three days after President Trump told Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that U.S. troops stationed along the border would be withdrawn. About 40 or 50,000 Christians live in the area under attack, according to Ishak, president of the Syriac National Council of Syria, and U.S. Christian leaders have been almost unanimous in criticizing what they see as Trump’s acquiescence to the Turkish move.
“What a disgrace,” tweeted Russell Moore, head of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. “Kurdish Christians (and others among the brave Kurds) have stood up for the United States and for freedom and human dignity. … What they are now facing from Erdogan’s authoritarian Turkey is horrifying beyond words.”
Psalm 73:11- “And the wicked say, ‘God does not see; God does not know what is happening.’”
This is wicked and unjust, and is seen by a God who will have the last word.
What a disgrace.
— Russell Moore (@drmoore) October 9, 2019
Among those Christian leaders now criticizing President Trump are several evangelicals who have been loyal supporters, including Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham.
“The Kurds are the ones who have been leading the fight against ISIS,” Graham tweeted. “Pray for the Christians who the Kurds have been protecting. They could be annihilated. Would you pray with me that @realDonaldTrump will reconsider?”
The Kurds are the ones who have been leading the fight against ISIS in Syria. Also pray for the Christians who the Kurds have been protecting. They could be annihilated. Would you pray w/me that Pres. @realDonaldTrump will reconsider? Thousands of lives hang in the balance. 2/2
— Franklin Graham (@Franklin_Graham) October 9, 2019
Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network, went so far as to warn earlier this week that Trump was at risk “of losing the mandate of heaven.”
Faced with such criticism, Trump on Tuesday released a statement defending his decision to pull U.S. troops out of the way of the Turkish advance.
“The United States does not endorse this attack and has made it clear to Turkey that this operation is a bad idea,” Trump said. “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.”
Trump’s statement, however, did not reassure Tony Perkins, the evangelical leader Trump chose as chairperson of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).
“I do not have a high level of confidence — in fact, I have no confidence — that Turkey will preserve true religious freedom or protect those religious minorities,” Perkins told NPR.”We could see another genocide in that region.”
Just a year ago, Perkins negotiated with Turkish authorities to secure the release of Andrew Brunson, a U.S. evangelical Christian pastor who had been imprisoned in Turkey for two years.
As the USCIRF chair, Perkins has advocated for religious freedom in the Middle East. The Kurdish-controlled area of northern Syria is one of the few places where people of different faith traditions have lived together.
“Our concern is that this emerging model could be lost,” Perkins says. “You actually have Muslims who have converted to Christianity, and others, and they’re openly practicing their faith. They become targets, and the concern is a kind of a domino effect with the Turkish forces focusing on the Kurds. [When] the Kurds flee, the Christians become vulnerable.”
Most Christians in the Syrian province of Hasakeh, the focus of Turkish attacks, have fled during the last eight years of fighting in Syria, according to Ishak.
“If they keep targeting this area, it won’t take much to force those who are still there to leave,” he says.