Why evangelicals oppose Trump over Syria

The televangelist Pat Robertson stood by Donald Trump in 2016 during the storm over the “Access Hollywood” tape of the Republican candidate boasting about assaulting women, dismissing the remarks as “macho talk.” As recently as last month, he defended Trump’s attempt to get Ukraine to discredit Joe Biden, calling the idea of impeachment “absurd.” But this week, finally, Trump did something that “absolutely appalled” Robertson, leading him to warn that the president was in danger of losing “the mandate of Heaven”: He moved a small contingent of American troops from the Syrian-Turkish border, signaling to Turkey that it could begin an assault on territory held by Kurdish guerrillas.

And within days the assault began, with Turkish air and ground forces attacking towns along the border Thursday, tens of thousands of civilians fleeing and a half-million at risk of being caught in the fighting.

Bassam Ishak, president of the Syriac National Council of Syria, an organization that advocates for the rights of Syriac Christians and other Syrian minorities, told Yahoo News he has been receiving photos and videos of the damage caused by Turkish airstrikes in the region once protected by U.S. forces.

“People are frightened, and many have already fled the area,” he said, citing reports that estimate over 60,000 people have fled their homes in northern Syria since Wednesday.

Trump’s move, reversing a long-standing American commitment to protect the Kurds, who for the last five years have borne the brunt of the fighting against the Islamic militants of ISIS, drew widespread condemnation across the political spectrum, including from such close political allies as Sen. Lindsey Graham. Critics called it a betrayal, and warned that fighting in the area could allow ISIS to regroup. The Kurds have been holding a large number of captured ISIS fighters, who could escape in the chaos (something Trump said wasn’t a concern to America, since he assumed most of them would go to Europe).

“You are giving a rope of survival to this group that you just defeated,” Ishak said.

Rev. Pat Robertson in 2015. (Photo: Steve Helber/AP)

But evangelicals were particularly outraged. Others besides Robertson who expressed dismay at the move included former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who tweeted, “I generally support @POTUS on foreign policy & don’t want our troops fighting other nations’ wars, but a HUGE mistake to abandon Kurds. They’ve never asked us to do THEIR fighting-just give them tools to defend themselves. They have been faithful allies. We CANNOT abandon them.”

Among prominent Christian evangelical leaders, Jerry Falwell Jr. and Robert Jeffress were almost alone in backing Trump’s move.

At first glance, Christian evangelicals wouldn’t seem to have a direct stake in the issue. The Kurds, an ethnic group in a region that encompasses parts of Iraq, Syria and Turkey, are primarily Muslim. There is a considerable Christian population in the affected area of northeast Syria — estimated at around 40,000 by Peter Burns of the Washington-based In Defense of Christians, including members of the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East — but not much evangelical presence, either in established congregations or as missionaries.

But there are larger geopolitical issues in play. Turkey’s fraught relationship with the Kurds has long been a source of tension with the U.S. There are around 35 million Kurds spread across the Middle East, a third of them in Turkey. Their long struggle to establish a national state would threaten Turkish sovereignty over a considerable swath of territory, and Turkey considers their formidable guerrilla army terrorists.

Meanwhile the Kurds have earned, and cultivated, an image in the West as loyal American allies against ISIS. They have good relations with Israel, a country that evangelicals fervently support. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose main interest is in countering Iranian influence on his country’s borders, issued a strong condemnation of the Turkish invasion and a warning “against the ethnic cleansing of the Kurds by Turkey and its proxies.”

“Israel is prepared to extend humanitarian assistance to the gallant Kurdish people,” he added.

And evangelicals have reason to be wary of Turkey. It is a member of NATO and was a key ally of the U.S. during the Cold War, although more recently it has developed warmer relations, including military ones, with Russia. Trump seems to have a personal bond with the country’s authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, praising him last year for his promise “to eradicate whatever is left of ISIS in Syria ... and he is a man who can do it.”

But memories are long in that part of the world, and Christians haven’t forgotten the genocide Turkey perpetrated against Armenian and other Christian minorities a century ago, a crime that Turkey has never acknowledged. More recently, Andrew Brunson, an American pastor of a small church in the Turkish city of Izmir, was arrested and held in a Turkish jail for nearly two years, allegedly for associating with a banned political movement — a cause célèbre for American evangelicals who lobbied the Trump administration to seek his release through economic pressure. (He was freed and received a hero’s welcome at the White House last year.)

Human rights activists sounded the alarm as soon as Trump announced his plans to pull U.S. troops from the area — apparently without consulting the Pentagon or other advisers, after a phone call with Erdogan. The implication of the move is that “the Christians and Yazidis (another ancient religious minority also targeted for ISIS genocide) are no longer protected,” Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, told Yahoo News. “If they don’t flee, they could be killed.”

The almost unanimous criticism apparently took the White House by surprise; Trump tweeted out a warning to Turkey that he could “obliterate” their economy with sanctions if they misbehaved in Syria. As reports mounted of civilian casualties Thursday, Trump tweeted, somewhat inconclusively, “We have one of three choices: Send in thousands of troops and win Militarily, hit Turkey very hard Financially and with Sanctions, or mediate a deal between Turkey and the Kurds!”

He didn’t say which course he intended to follow, but unless Turkey — which fields the second-largest army in NATO behind the United States — can somehow be stopped, Shea warns that the outcome “could be the final blow to the 2,000-year-old Christian presence in that region, as those communities across the Middle East watch with horror and conclude that there is no place for them in the Middle East, that their only hope for a future is in the West.”

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