Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to visit a dozen of pastors in Iraqi Kurdistan, in the cities of Erbil and Duhok. The purpose of my visit was to promote ABTS’s educational programs with Arabic-speaking churches, namely our new online degree program and our English language Master’s program.
We often hear about the Kurdistan region in the news when violence happens – armed violence, US bombings, crimes by ISIS or terrorism. How can we pray for the people groups of this region, for the Church and for those called by God to serve Him in this area? The following are some of my notes from this trip to guide our prayers.
Kurdistan Spans over Four Countries
When you hear about Kurds in the media, it is necessary to identify which country we are talking about. When the region’s borders were drawn in the early 1900s, Kurdistan was split into four areas in four different countries – Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Each of these four States have persecuted the Kurds to varying degrees during various periods in history.
Iraq is Divided into Three de facto Parts
I visited Iraqi Kurdistan in Northern Iraq. The central Iraqi government controls the Southern and Eastern regions, including Baghdad at the center. ISIS took over the Western areas. This map roughly depicts these borders.
From the city of Erbil, not only are you barred from entering ISIS territory, but you also find yourself without access to Baghdad or to any region outside of the Kurdish regions. You need separate visas whether you’re landing in the Erbil airport (Iraqi Kurdistan) or in the Baghdad airport, even though it’s the same country. In addition, it is not safe to travel by car. Internal flight tickets are only available on the black market due to very high demand.
To my surprise, I discovered non-Kurdish Iraqis, including pastors I met, needed residency permits to live in Kurdish areas. You can read more about the harsh restrictions faced by Arabs in this recent Human Rights Watch report. Now that they are the ruling “majority” in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurds are reacting to years of oppression by putting restrictions on the non-Kurdish “minorities”.
Iraqi Kurdistan is acting autonomously. It has a government, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), a police and a military, and even its own language, the Kurdish Sorani! As I roamed around Erbil, I saw street signs in both Kurdish and in English – but none in Arabic.
This month, the KRG began selling crude oil from the region and Kirkuk independently from Iraq’s central government in Baghdad.
Freedom of Worship
In Iraqi Kurdistan, there is freedom for worship that, according to some pastors, dates back to 1990 when Saddam Hussein’s regime lost its grip on that region of Iraq. This freedom was further realized with the war of 2003 and subsequent regime change. Churches are free to operate and witness in this Kurdish region, which includes three main cities: Erbil, Duhok and Suleimania.
Also in 2003, a similar level of freedom began in Baghdad and in other Iraqi cities, although there is prevailing insecurity and repeated car bombs. One pastor from Baghdad shared that he was given permission to visit, pray for, and distribute New Testaments to the wounded Iraqi army soldiers and Shiite militia members who were fighting against ISIS in Iraq.
Still, Arab-Kurdish relations are tense. To say the least, many brothers and sisters are finding it difficult to become one body in Christ. Kurdish nationalism, the politics of fear, and prevailing insecurity are a challenge for Christian witness. For example, an Arabic language theology seminary was not given permission to open a branch in Iraqi Kurdistan because it was Arab.
Similarly to the Amazigh in Algeria, the Kurds in Iraq, and in Kurdistan in general, can find in Christianity an affirmation of their identity differences with “Muslim” Arabs. They both enjoy freedom of worship. However, unlike the Amazigh in Algeria who remain in minority status, the Kurds in Iraq are the majority as a result of their newly formed autonomy.
Opportunities for Ministry Abound in Arabic
At least 2.6 million people have been displaced in Iraq since the expansion of ISIS in June 2014. Close to 250,000 Syrian refugees took shelter in Iraq, mostly from Kurdish regions.
The displaced live in camps or throughout the city, sometimes squatting in unfinished buildings. In the hotel where I stayed, there were dozens of displaced Yazidi families staying at the expense of an international organization, while they transitioned to other regions in Iraq.
The displaced belong to at least a dozen people groups, with either their own language or their own Arabic dialect. Therefore, Arabic is still the language of choice when a church attends to their social and personal needs and proclaims the good news of Christ. It is important for the churches to be equipped to reach out to them in Arabic.
The displaced from Syria in Iraqi Kurdistan are mostly Syrian Kurds. Syrian Kurdish (Kurmanji) and Iraqi Kurdish (Sorani) are different, the former using Latin script and the latter Arabic script. However, they’re still able to communicate. One Iraqi Kurdish church that I visited had a vision to reach out to the Syrian Kurds in Iraq.
Source: Sorani Kurdish versus Kurmanji Kurdish: An Empirical Comparison
Damage to Minorities Seems Permanent
One of the taxi drivers who drove me around was Yazidi. He ran a successful small business in his home town, before losing everything in June 2014 when ISIS took over. “I’m not going back,” he said. There’s nothing to go back to. A pastor told me that as the Yazidis fled Sinjar, ISIS stripped them from all their belongings at the checkpoints.
The displaced from all minorities who fled ISIS have no confidence in any authority who can protect them in the future.
Transition is the Only Constant
Many pastors and ministers are waiting to emigrate. They are in a transition phase, until a visa to the US, Canada, Europe or Australia arrives. Almost everyone I met had family members in one of these countries.
And the church congregations are dwindling. Christians don’t feel safe, and many seek greener pastures. Thousands of Iraqi families have fled since June 2014 to Lebanon, joining the hundreds of thousands who have fled the country since 2003. The recently displaced Iraqis and Syrian refugees in Iraq are also waiting departure.
The newly displaced, internally or as refugees from Syria, are filling the empty seats – temporarily. At the Baptist church service that I attended on Sunday evening (photo below), four new families came to the church for the first time. They were relatives of existing church members.
A Need for Theological Formation
In my meeting with the head of one of the evangelical denominations in Iraq, he shared with me that they need equipped persons called to plant churches in Iraq. “Our denomination has the official authorizations from authorities to establish new churches, but we do not have pastors.”
The theological education at ABTS is highly regarded, and suitable for Iraq’s context. The online degree program may be particularly strategic, as opposed to our residential program, because the impression in Iraq is that he who leaves Iraq will not return. He and several pastors shared with me the following story. Out of 35 Iraqis that had pursued theological studies in seminaries outside of Iraq, only two returned to minister in Iraq. Undeniably, there is a need to minister to the tens of thousands of Christian Iraqi refugees in the diaspora. But who will be left in Iraqi Kurdistan to carry forward the church’s uninterrupted witness to the healing and saving presence of Christ among the Kurds, Arabs and other ethnic and religious sub-groups?
We need to pray for God to strengthen the remaining ministry and church leaders whom He has called to serve Him in this region. We need to pray as per Luke 10:2: “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”
 The Kurds have armed themselves, with the most known armed group being the PKK in Turkey. Currently, the US is cooperating with Syrian Kurds in fighting ISIS in Syria. The Kurdish militia in Syria, known as the YPG, is closely aligned with the PKK, that has fought for Kurdish self-rule since the 1980s. The PKK and the YPG are in disagreement with the ruling party in Iraqi Kurdistan. The latter is an ally of Turkey.
This is a terrific report. Excellent work, Wissam. Thank you very, very much for helping us know details about this dear land and precious people. I so much appreciate this piece.
It is very sad that most who leave Iraq to have theological training end up not returning. I understand why but still, something is not right. Perhaps we need to work more on our theology. What kind of theology do we have in this region that does not speak up against people from all over the area, even Lebanon and Jordan which do not have war, rushing to emigrate and leave?
I completely agree. I am not from the region, but my heart breaks for those churches who could really use their help. Iraqis with theological training can minister to their own in ways I never could as I am of a different culture and speak a different language.