By Diana Colby
There are about 25 million Kurds in the world, give or take a few million. Their homeland, called “Kurdistan,” spans four countries: Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria. They speak a language that is related to Persian, and have traditionally lived in the Taurus and Zagros mountains and nearby plains. For centuries they have been mainly farmers and sheepherders, although as a result of modernization, most Kurds are now urban-dwellers. Although the Kurds qualify as an “unreached people” because the percentage of believers among them is low, God is nevertheless doing some exciting things among them. We’ll get to that, but first, a bit of history:
With the exception of Iranian Kurdistan, Kurdistan was part of the Ottoman Empire until World War I. When the Western winners of the war carved its territories into separate countries during the 1920s, the Kurds were the largest ethnic group living in the former Ottoman lands to be partitioned. Since then, many Kurds have dreamed of re-unification and independence for the Kurdish people.
The Kurdish people became famous to the outside world in 1991, when TV broadcasts showed nearly three million of them fleeing Saddam Hussein’s army during the Gulf War. For weeks they suffered in the mud and freezing conditions, without adequate water, food, and shelter. After they returned to their homes with protection from the US Army, the Allies set up air patrols to protect them from Iraqi government forces. These patrols lasted for over a decade while Iraqi Kurds set up their own regional government, a remarkable achievement given the Kurds’ tortured political history.
The Kurds’ history has been characterized by suffering on a grand scale, and often. While history records numerous pogroms and massacres dating back centuries, the 20th century was by far the worst. Kurds in Iran are repressed by the government and suffered disproportionately during the Iran-Iraq war. In Syria, thousands of Kurds do not have citizenship, and virtually all are marginalized economically and prohibited from promoting their culture and language. Use of the Kurdish language is banned in schools and publications. In Turkey, the government has cracked down brutally on Kurds, especially since the 1980s, when an organized Kurdish resistance movement began its violent campaign for a separate Kurdish state. Thousands have been killed, and thousands more have fled west to Istanbul or Europe. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s government attempted genocide against the Kurds in the 1980s, dropping poison gas on them from the air. It victimized many more in untold ways. Kurds were certainly not its only victims, but they suffered intensely under Saddam’s regime.
The suffering and political instability in their homeland has caused many Kurds to migrate elsewhere, mainly to Europe but also to Australia and the United States. The population of Kurds abroad now numbers at least one million.
FAITH AND HISTORY
Evidence suggests the Kurds’ closest predecessors were the Medes, the people mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments. Medes are mentioned ten times in the Old Testament, often alongside their neighbors, the Persians. They were politically and militarily important. Some Medes are mentioned in Acts as being present at Pentecost in Jerusalem. They are listed as one of the peoples who heard the disciples, through the power of the Holy Spirit, speaking in their own language.
Median believers were likely some of the very first Christians. While the jury is out on how much connection can be drawn with confidence between the Kurds and the Medes, history reveals that by the fifth century, the majority of the people living in the area today known as Kurdistan became Christians through Nestorius and his followers. Nestorius was a controversial figure, and was condemned by church authorities in Constantinople for his insistence that the nature of the incarnate Christ was simultaneously human and divine. Despite these troubles, he and the many missionaries he inspired were the first people to take the Gospel across Asia. The Kurds can therefore be said to have Christian roots.
In the seventh century, however, Islam came to the region through the Arab conquests. Most Kurds converted. Today, the majority of Kurdish people are still Muslims. A minority are Yezidis, who follow a secretive syncretistic faith that includes elements of Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Islam. Until the formation of the state of Israel in 1948 and the years shortly following, a Jewish minority, sometimes called “Kurdish Jews” or “Jewish Kurds” also lived in the area. They spoke Syriac, a tongue close to Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. There are no longer any self-professing Jews left in Kurdistan.
THE CONTEMPORARY CHRISTIAN PRESENCE AMONG THE KURDS
Despite the prominence of Islam in Kurdistan, today there are still thousands of Christians there who trace their descent through many centuries of church history, a fact of which they are proud. They include Chaldean Catholics, Assyrian Orthodox (known as “Nestorians” until the late 19th century), Syrian Orthodox, and Armenian. They comprise less than 10% of the population. Like the Jews who formerly lived in the area, they speak Syriac (neo-Aramaic) as their mother tongue. Most also speak Kurdish and/or Arabic. In most cases they do not refer to themselves as ethnically Kurdish, except perhaps if talking to an outsider who does not understand the complexities of local ethnic identities, or for political purposes. Nevertheless, the term “Kurdish Christians,” when it is occasionally used, most often refers to people from these groups.
Like the Kurds among whom they live, these historically Christian groups have suffered from political violence. The 20th century was particularly bloody for them as well. The Armenian genocide around the time of WWI is the most famous, but in addition there have been many other incidents of violence and massacres. In the late 19th century Christians began to migrate to the West. This, combined with violence, political marginalization and a lower birth rate than the surrounding Muslim population, have resulted in a great decline in their numbers.
Their numbers are further kept low because of their stance toward evangelism: most Christians from the historic Christian communities do not share their faith with non-Christians, so their churches do not typically grow through conversions. There are several reasons for this. Probably the most important reason is a fear of persecution by the majority Muslim population, which includes Kurds. The threat of persecution is backed up by the law in some places, especially Iran. A member of the local Christian community who encouraged a Muslim to convert would also be in danger. Thus Christian leaders have discouraged, and even prohibited, in the name of political and societal stability, Christians from sharing their faith with Muslims. In addition, many members of the historically Christian communities are nominal in belief, and thus do not share their faith with non-Christian Kurds.
There is another, growing category of Kurdish Christians, however. Kurds from a Muslim background are turning to Christ in numbers greater than in recent decades and perhaps even since their ancestors turned to Islam centuries ago. They are joining or starting evangelical fellowships with others from similar backgrounds. These fellowships resemble New Testament church to a greater degree than they resemble the historically Christian churches in Kurdistan. Most of them face persecution from their families and governments, especially when their faith first comes to light, but this has not stopped them from meeting together and growing and encouraging each other in their faith.
These believers have come to Christ through various means. Many report having had a dream about Jesus or having read the Bible in secret before seeking out a believer who could explain the faith more fully to them. Others have responded to the witness of Western missionaries or development workers. Still others have begun to follow Christ while living in a Western country, or moved to the West to escape persecution after coming to faith.
As a result, there are now small Kurdish-speaking fellowships meeting in a number of countries, both in Kurdistan and in the West. In addition, since most Kurds speak the dominant language of the country in which they live, some are members of fellowships that that have mixed ethnic membership and use other languages such as Arabic or Turkish.
In Turkey, the church has grown significantly in the past decade, attracting both Turks and Kurds. Kurdish believers now worship alongside Turks in several Turkish cities. The government’s secularist stance has not prevented members of these fellowships from undergoing persecution, but it has left breathing room, particularly in the legal system, for the church that might not otherwise have been there. Turkey’s bid to join the European Union is partly dependent on its demonstration that its citizens enjoy basic freedoms, including religious freedom. This too may lead to the church becoming higher-profile. In the mean-time, God is raising up a new generation of Kurdish and Turkish believers whose faith is refined through persecution.
In Iran, the government deals harshly with anyone who turns from Islam. Officially, such people are apostates and can, and sometimes do, receive the death penalty. This has not prevented growing numbers of Iranians, including Kurds, from choosing to follow Christ. These brave believers meet in secret, or study the Bible and pray as individuals. Among Iranians outside Iran, the church is experiencing unprecedented growth. There are now over 50 active, growing Iranian fellowships comprised mainly of Muslim-background believers in Western countries. Many of these congregations are very open, boldly proclaiming their faith and inviting others to join them through web pages and other forms of media, and sending missionaries back to Iran. This is despite a degree of fear from Muslim Iranians that reaches even to the farthest reaches of the global Iranian community.
Iraqi Kurdistan is unique in that it has been under the control of a Kurdish administration since 1991. While Iraq as a whole suffered under tyranny during the rule of Saddam Hussein, Iraqi Kurds enjoyed twelve years of near-autonomy. Kurdish leaders, while not enthusiastic about the growth of the church, have nevertheless allowed it out of a desire to be democratic. Several evangelical fellowships, comprised of people from various backgrounds including the historically Christian groups, now meet regularly in northern Iraq. They are growing and becoming bolder in their faith despite threats from Islamists and others. As in Iran, these threats sometimes materialize in the form of violence. But through radio, education, bookstores, and other means, Kurdish believers are reaching out to the people around them. Several fellowships of Iraqi Kurds also exist in the West. As a result, it is likely that there are now more Iraqi Kurdish evangelicals than Iraqi Arab evangelicals!
Of the four countries where Kurds have traditionally lived, Syria has the smallest Kurdish population and is thus most likely the country with the smallest number of Kurdish believers. But even in Syria, some Kurds are choosing to follow Christ. In one region, several families have become believers, an exception to the more common pattern of individuals coming to faith against the wishes of the rest of the family. Since Kurdish society is very family-oriented, this is an exciting development in the history of the Kurdish church.
Starting in the late 19th century, God prompted a number of Western missionaries to move to Kurdistan to proclaim the gospel to the people there. They started schools and hospitals. They worked with the historically Christian groups in hopes of reaching the Muslim Kurds. A number lost their lives, some violently. Although they labored faithfully, they saw few lasting fruits.
But our God, who offers the free gift of salvation to all people, including Kurdish people, was not finished moving among the Kurds. In recent decades a new generation has been raised up to reach the Kurds. Western missionaries, and non-Western missionaries from the Middle East and other parts of the world, are again working among the Kurds in the various locations where Kurds live. The New Testament has now been translated into Kurdish, and work continues on the Old Testament. The Jesus video exists in both major dialects of Kurdish and has been seen by thousands of Kurds.
Increasingly, today’s missionaries to the Kurds are themselves Kurdish. A Kurdish woman living in Scandinavia accepted the Lord and hurried back to Kurdistan to tell her family and friends. An Iranian Kurdish woman was nearly killed for her faith, and fled to the West. There, despite lingering fear, she is slowly learning to trust and reach out to her own ethnic group. Dr. Saeed, a Kurdish medical doctor, trusted Christ and shared his faith boldly with numerous people. (His biography is included on the list below.) A Kurdish man in the United States became an evangelist, reaching other Kurds with the Gospel both in Kurdistan and in the United States. An American church recently commissioned a Kurdish missionary couple who are now working full-time to reach their own people. The Kurdish church is growing, but there is still a vast amount of work to be done. If you are a Kurdish believer, be encouraged! Be bold! Share your faith! If you are a non-Kurdish believer with a call to reach out where God leads, pray about the Kurds. God might just be preparing the way for you to share the light with them!
- If you have a Kurdish friend, pray for wisdom as to how to share with them.
- Pray for peace and stability in Kurdistan
- Ask the Lord to raise up more long-term workers for the harvest among the Kurds
- Pray for people already ministering among the Kurds
- Ask God to protect Kurdish believers and give them confidence to share their faith with
- Pray for the governments of the countries where Kurds live.
Blincoe, Robert, Ethnic Realities and the Church: Lessons from Kurdistan, a History of Mission Work, 1668-1990. Pasadena: Presbyterian Center for Mission Studies, 1998.
Love, Fran and Jeleta Eckheart, Longing to Call Them Sisters: Ministry to Muslim Women. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library. 2000.
Love, Rick, Muslims, Magic, and the Kingdom of God: Church Planting Among Folk Muslims. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library. 2000.
Mallouhi, Christine, Waging Peace on Islam. Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. 2002.
McCurry, Don M., ed., Sharing the Gospel With Iranians. Altadena: Zwemer Institute of Muslim Studies, 1982.
Miller, William McElwee, Ten Muslims Meet Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 1984.
Rasooli, Jay M. and Cady H. Allen, Dr. Sa’eed of Iran: Kurdish Physician to Princes and Peasants, Nobles and Nomads. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library. 1983.
Sweetnam, Denise L., Kurdish Culture: A Cross-Cultural Guide. Bonn: Culture and Science Publishers. 1994.
This post originally appeared on urbana.org.