Trump Syria pullout endangers Christians, Evangelicals warn

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By – The Washington Times –  Christian evangelicals and religious advocates are sharply criticizing President ’s decision to pull U.S. troops back from northern , warning it has created a security vacuum on the ground that puts religious minorities in the firing line and could lead to a resurgence of both Islamist Turkish influence and the revival of the radical Islamic State movement.

Religious conservatives who have been among ’s most loyal defenders were among the most critical of the U.S. military drawdown in , which has been followed almost immediately by a Turkish incursion into northern Syrian targeting U.S.-allied Kurdish forces.

Many fear 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 to escape ’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 Wednesday’s first day of fighting were Christian Assyrians residents of the city of Qamishli.

“Christians and others are extremely worried,” Bassam Ishak, political leader of the Syriac Christian community, told the () in a phone interview Wednesday. “The Turkish bombing seems designed to push people out of their towns, if, in fact, they manage to escape alive.”

On Monday as news of the impending pullout spread, criticism flew from former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who called ’s decision a “HUGE mistake” on Twitter, to televangelist Pat Robertson, declared would be “in danger of losing the mandate of heaven if he permits [the U.S. withdrawal] to happen,” on an episode of his show, “The 700 Club.”

John Stonestreet, the host of Christian radio program “BreakPoint,” urged listeners Wednesday to the White House and tell them to “stand by the Kurds,” who Mr. Stonestreet said maintain lands in northern that are the “last-resort havens for persecuted Yazidis and Christians.”

Tony Perkins, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), said Wednesday that the Turkish invasion puts at risk a rare oasis of religious tolerance in the region. The Syrian Kurds have been widely praised for allowing various faiths to practice their religion freely in the lands 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 ’s incursion is likely to spark,” Mr. Perkins warned in a statement.

Iraqi Christians are bracing for a flood of religious refugees from as the Turkish campaign proceeds, said Father 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 from northern Iraq.

As few as 10,000 ethnic Yazidis may still 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 ’s population, though that number has dwindled since the civil war erupted in 2011.

Countries of concern

In the most recent USCIRF report on worldwide international religious freedom, the State Department labeled as one of the “countries of particular concern,” alleging the most severe and persistent oppression of faith freedom in the world. , under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule, was placed on a watch list.

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What remains of both the Christian and Yazidi communities is concentrated in northern , where the SDF and other forces still resisting Syrian President Bashar Assad retain some control. But that control may be in doubt with accounts on Wednesday that Turkey’s Air Force — on orders from Mr. Erdogan — has begun bombing the village of Misharrafa in the Kurd-controlled region.

Already, reports of “mass panic” have worried international religious liberty observers, who say they’ve seen this pattern before.

In 2018, after the Turkish offensive dubbed “Operation Olive Branch” cleared out the U.S.-backed leaders in the northwestern town of Afrin, there were reports of Islamist Syrians forcing conversions of Yazidis, kidnapping Yazidi women and girls, and looting Kurdish properties. The Gatestone Institute, a New York-based conservative think tank, also reported in May 2018 of discussions between jihadist rebel groups and Turkish military leaders to establish Islam-based sharia law.

Mr. Perkins said U.S. and allied action was urgently needed to prevent “a repeat of the disastrous occupation of Afrin, , by Turkish forces and their Syrian militia allies since 2018, which has displaced beleaguered Kurds, Christians, Yazidis and others.”

While the Trump administration has touted international religious freedom as a top foreign policy goal, hosting a July summit in Washington with representatives from over a hundred nations attending, has also sought to end America’s participation in what he has called “endless wars” in the Middle East and elsewhere.

A Wednesday morning statement to the press pool at the White House said had made it clear to Mr. Erdogan that the U.S. does not “endorse this attack.”

“ 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,” said in the statement.

A second worry is that thousands of hardened Islamic State fighters, now being held in makeshift detention centers in manned by the Kurds, could escape or even be set free if their Kurdish 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,” said USCIRF Vice Chair Gayle Manchin, in a statement Wednesday. “There is now a serious risk that ’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 and beyond.”

Mr. Erdogan “says he is creating a ‘safe haven’ in northeast to bring Syrian refugees back,” Father Youkhana told Wednesday. “Actually, it is a demographic change policy by forcing Kurds, Christians, and Yazidis out and putting Sunni Muslims in their place.”