On Monday, September 25, the Kurdish people of northern Iraq will go to the polls to vote on whether they should seek independence. While U.S. officials have expressed opposition to the measure, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu backs the effort for a Kurdish state.
The issues at stake are complex. Yet for popular historian and Christian author Stephen Mansfield, becoming friends with the Kurds has given him clarity. He even wrote a book entitled The Miracle of the Kurds: A Remarkable Story of Hope Reborn in Northern Iraq.
Many Americans are naturally skeptical of involvement in the Middle East, as news headlines tell of rival factions continually in conflict. Now Mansfield reveals why he believes Christians should speak up for the Kurds, a Muslim-majority people whom he says are open to other faiths having a voice in the region.
Speaking from your background as a Bible teacher, could you discuss how believers should respond to injustice?
Stephen Mansfield: As Christians, we are particularly called to live out the parable of the Good Samaritan. We have a godly calling to aid the peoples of the world and end oppression.
The late Francis Schaeffer used to say: It is a Christian response when we’re walking on the street and see someone being molested on the opposite side of the street, to cross the street and end the molestation.
Christian churches in Nashville, Tennessee showed an appropriate Christian response when they cared for the Kurds, an oppressed and beleaguered people. Nashville churches welcomed Kurdish families, took them into their homes, built teahouses for them, helped them get driver's licenses, jobs, education, and to learn English. That’s exactly what Christians ought to be doing.
Aside from helping the oppressed, aside from reaching for the downtrodden, aside from working for justice both locally and internationally, there’s also a benefit to the Great Commission.
Any Christians who want to go silent on this issue in Kurdistan, and do not recognize the virtues and justice of it, should never speak again about the condition of the Middle East, or ever complain again about international affairs — because this is such an obvious win-win.
It’s a clear calling from Scripture for Christians to respond and make a difference.
How are the Kurdish people counter-cultural and their story ‘miraculous’?
Mansfield: Of the factions in the Middle East, the Kurds have been known all through the centuries as a very hospitable people. Probably that’s somewhat mountain culture, just like it is in the states. A typically Kurdish response to international events like the refugee crisis is their innate hospitality.
The other thing is their mistreatment by their Islamic brothers in the region has caused them to be more moderate. The senior mullah in Kurdistan once told me, “I am a Kurd first, and a Muslim second,” which is a very unusual way for him to speak.
Part of the reason I’m such an advocate for the Kurds is their welcome mat put out to the world, their willingness to help refugees, and their moderation religiously in particular.
For example, the Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil has a Christian office and a Yezidi office. The last time I was there, there were rabbis from Israel walking around the corridors of government. All of this tells me that the Kurds are a symbol of where we want the Middle East to go.
The Kurds have been the primary boots on the ground against ISIS. Their guerilla warriors, now the official military force in the region, are called Peshmerga which means “those who face death.”
It’s primarily been the Kurds who have, block by block, sand hill by sand hill, taken on ISIS. They’ve won most of the victories, done most of the killing, and secured most of the territory.
What is your assessment of the Trump Administration’s foreign policy thus far in this region?
Mansfield: Thus far, the Trump administration has given verbal support to an independent Kurdistan, but it hasn’t taken any decisive steps.
A lot of that has been because of all the distraction here in D.C. It’s what we’re all kind of disgusted by in the news, how they’re trying to solve all these internal crises. But the referendum is a wise move on the part of Kurdish leaders, because it’s going to force this whole issue front and center.
In the campaign and since President Donald Trump’s inauguration, there has been tacit support for Kurdish independence, and strong support for the Kurds militarily, but there hasn’t been any decisive diplomatic or military action that will guarantee an independent Kurdistan. Decisive action is what’s going to have to come next.
For Christians, whose engagement globally is linked to making disciples of all nations, why is advocating for a Muslim-majority nation a just, good cause?
Mansfield: If I’m only speaking as a Christian intent on furthering the Great Commission, what better thing could happen than for a Christian-friendly democracy to take root in the belly of the Middle East? There really are not a great many nations in the Middle East the Christian community can celebrate.
Jordan and Israel are moderate and tolerant of their Christian communities. As far as evangelicals are concerned, as far as the expansion of the Gospel, as far as Christians who would want to convert others, very few countries are open to that.
But the Kurds are! I’ve been in Iraqi Kurdistan when The Jesus Film was shown and government dignitaries attended. There’s a Christian office in the Kurdistan Regional Government.
I’m welcomed and I’m an outspoken evangelical. I spoke at a recent symposium attended by leading Kurds. They know exactly who I am and what I stand for. The largest and arguably best secondary school in Iraqi Kurdistan is run by an evangelical pastor; almost all of the government leaders have their kids and grandkids going to it.
It is true, the Kurdish people are 97 percent Muslim. But the nature of those people and their attitude toward Christianity can literally embed Christianity more deeply in the Middle East. They are not only open to discourse, they are moderate and welcoming of the Christian community.
In fact, they have taken in several million refugees — the vast majority of whom are Christians, both Catholics and Protestants.
Since the release of your book “The Miracle of the Kurds,” what reactions have you received from readers — including within Iraqi Kurdistan?
Mansfield: The thing that touched me most about the Kurdish response is their deep gratitude.
I haven’t done that much really, but the Kurds have seen my book, or my TEDx talk, or the Washington Times op-eds in their favor. They’re so grateful, even though I haven’t done that much, because they don’t have many people in the West who are outspoken advocates for them. There aren’t many who are willing to risk and go over there.
Outside the Kurdish community, the primary response I’ve gotten has been surprise. People have no idea. I don’t want to be insulting about American education, but I’m convinced the average American cannot distinguish Kurds the people from ‘curds’ the breakfast food.
We just weren’t taught well. I’m thinking back to my own education, as a military brat living around the world — it wasn’t until I got to the university level that the Kurds were even mentioned. The average American has no idea who the Kurds are.
I have sat down with Members of Congress and the Senate, answering their questions over a hamburger, trying to help them understand the issues. I get calls regularly from people in D.C. and I’m grateful to answer them.
But when they read the book, they’re shocked. Maybe they remember the pictures of the slaughters under Saddam Hussein, but they had no idea who the Kurds are, no idea that they’re supporting democracy, a free market, and a largely positive attitude towards Israel.
People are completely shocked by the story — and determined to get something done.
For more in-depth questions from this interview, visit The Federalist.
Josh Shepherd covers culture, faith and public policy issues for media outlets including The Stream, The Federalist and Christian Headlines, where he serves as a contributor. He previously worked on staff at The Heritage Foundation, Focus on the Family, and Bound4LIFE International. Josh and his wife live in the Washington D.C. area. Follow him at @JoshMShep on Twitter.
Photo: Two Kurdish men in northern Iraq patrol the area, holding the Kurdistan flag.
Photo credit: Flickr