Evangelicals, Religious-Freedom Groups Criticize US Move to Pull Troops From Syria

Turkey’s military incursion into Syria one day later fueled their fears further.

Franklin Graham speaks during Franklin Graham's 'Decision America' California tour at the Stanislaus County Fairgrounds in Turlock, California.
Franklin Graham speaks during Franklin Graham's 'Decision America' California tour at the Stanislaus County Fairgrounds in Turlock, California. (photo: 2018 Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Evangelical leaders and international religious-freedom groups broke with the Trump administration in a significant way last week after President Donald Trump’s Oct. 6 decision to remove U.S. troops from northern Syria along the border with Turkey.

The move was shortly followed by a Turkish military incursion into Syria. Many U.S. Christians, including longtime Trump supporters, believe the removal of the troops threatens Christians in Syria and betrays key Kurdish allies.

Trump’s decision was harshly denounced by some prominent leaders of the U.S. evangelical community, which has been a key constituency supporting him both during his presidency and during the 2016 election campaign.

Pat Robertson, the Christian Broadcast Network founder and host of The 700 Club, declared he was “absolutely appalled” by the decision. He said Oct. 7 that the president is “in danger of losing the mandate of heaven if he permits this to happen."


Franklin Graham’s Perspective

Franklin Graham, a prominent evangelical Protestant minister and the president of the aid group Samaritan’s Purse, offered a more nuanced perspective. His organization has done relief work for the Christians in Syria.

“With Turkey invading Syria, the Christian communities that are inside of Syria, which have been largely protected by the Kurdish and Arab alliance, these villages now will be threatened,” he told the Register.

Graham, the son of iconic evangelist Billy Graham, did acknowledge that President Trump faced some difficult choices in Syria. “What he did is he pulled the troops away from the Turkish border, and the United States only had a few hundred in that area,” he explained. “The Turks said they were going to invade. The president did not want to get U.S. soldiers in the middle. We didn’t have enough forces to stop an invasion, so I think that needs to be understood. The president had a very difficult decision.”

Graham pointed out that “there are 20 million Kurds inside of Turkey, 20 million, and they are treated like second-class citizens. The Kurds in Syria, many of them, have been fighting for freedom.”

Graham was also concerned over a potential resurgence of Islamic State group (ISIS) militants in the region. While some fear that ISIS captives will escape from prisons in Syria as the Kurdish personnel guarding them fight Turkish forces, Graham said that there was a threat from ISIS within Turkey, as well.

“There are many ISIS fighters that are living inside of Turkey right now,” he said. “They live there openly, so this is an issue, and I’m just afraid for the Kurdish people and for the Christians that live along the border area, that their lives will be in danger from the Turkish army.”

Graham applauded Trump for being “outspoken about religious-freedom issues,” but added that he hoped “the United States will use sanctions and some other things to restrain them [Turkey] and force them back some.”

“Some of these communities go back over a thousand years or more, 2,000 years, and there’s a danger of Christianity being wiped out of Syria,” he emphasized. “So we need to pray for the Christians, and we need to pray that these Islamists and ISIS and others will be contained or defeated. We need to pray for the president, that God would give him wisdom.”


Protecting Religious Minorities

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), chaired by prominent evangelical Protestant Tony Perkins, urged U.S. intervention to protect minorities in the region.

“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 Turkey’s incursion is likely to spark,” Perkins said in an email interview. “The United States and international partners must move quickly to limit civilian casualties and to prevent a repeat of the disastrous occupation of Afrin, Syria, by Turkish forces and their Syrian militia allies since 2018, which has displaced beleaguered Kurds, Christians, Yazidis and others.”

Perkins told National Public Radio Wednesday that he had “no confidence that Turkey will preserve true religious freedom or protect those religious minorities,” and added, “We could see another genocide in that region."

In Defense of Christians (IDC), a nonprofit human-rights group that advocates for Middle East Christians, called for the use of economic sanctions to pressure Turkey in a press release sent to the Register. The release noted that “there are over 40,000 Christians in the northeast, which is a dramatic decrease from the 130,000 Christians who lived in this area before the impact of ISIS and the Syrian crisis.” 

“Should Turkey target the Christians or Yazidis in Syria, IDC will work with the Trump administration and Congress to reinstate sanctions on Turkey immediately,” the statement said. “When Turkey imprisoned Pastor Andrew Brunson, IDC worked with Congress to call for sanctions on Turkey, which the administration successfully leveraged to free Pastor Brunson.”

IDC told EWTN News Nightly Oct. 10 that they had “confirmed” that Christian civilians have already been the target of Turkish strikes.


The President’s Response

Trump has also faced criticism from GOP leadership, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who opposed pulling back U.S. troops. Trump condemned Turkey’s military operations in an Oct. 9 statement.

“The United States does not endorse this attack and has made it clear to Turkey that this operation is a bad idea,” he said. “There are no American soldiers in the area. From the first day I entered the political arena, I made it clear that I did not want to fight these endless, senseless wars — especially those that don’t benefit the United States.”

In that statement, he claimed that “Turkey 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.”

President Trump announced $50 million in aid funding to Syria on Oct. 12 at the evangelical Values Voters Summit.

White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement that the funding “will provide emergency financial assistance to Syrian human-rights defenders, civil society organizations and reconciliation efforts directly supporting ethnic and religious-minority victims of the conflict.”

“We hope regional and international partners will continue their contributions, as well,” she emphasized. “Ensuring the freedom and safety of ethnic and religious minorities remains a top priority for this administration.”

The White House did not return the Register’s request for comment regarding how specifically they would address the growing concerns for the safety of Christians in the region.

In a series of tweets Oct. 10, President Trump appeared to outline options for the U.S. response to Turkey’s actions.

“Now Turkey is attacking the Kurds, who have been fighting each other for 200 years,” he wrote. “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!”

Reports circulated Oct. 14 that President Trump is planning to impose economic sanctions on Turkey as soon as this week. “Treasury is ready to go, additional legislation may be sought. There is great consensus on this,” Trump tweeted. “Turkey has asked that it not be done. Stay tuned!”


Catholic Perspectives

Pope Francis expressed his concern Sunday over the fighting and for the “many Christian families” living in Syria. He prayed for dialogue and peace.

“My thoughts go once again to the Middle East, in particular, to the beloved and tormented Syria, from which dramatic news arrives again about the fate of the people of the country’s northeast, who are forced to abandon their houses because of military actions,”  the Pope said. “To all the actors involved and to the international community, I renew the appeal to commit sincerely on the path of dialogue to seek effective solutions.”

U.S. bishops have been noticeably quieter than U.S. evangelical leaders regarding Trump’s decision to pull back the troops and the consequences it could have for Syria’s Christians. They have advocated for U.S. aid funding to Syrian Christians in the past after the onslaught of ISIS. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) did not respond to the Register’s request for comment about the present situation.

Father Benedict Kiely, the founder of the charity Nasarean.org, which does advocacy work for persecuted Christians in the Middle East, told the Register that the situation for Syrian Christians is complex, as they also have some tension with the Kurds.

“Many Christians in that area are glad to return to the control of the Syrian government; they certainly did not want to be under Turkish control,” he commented by email, “and many felt the Kurdish authorities in northern Syria were not their friends.”

From Iraq, Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil released a statement Oct. 11 anticipating a new wave of refugees from the conflict and warning of the danger to minorities that the conflict will cause.

“Our special concern is for the innocent refugees and displaced of all faiths,” Archbishop Warda wrote. “In this we must be prepared in Erbil and northern Iraq for another wave of refugees. We raise this issue now so that the international community can be ready to help if and when the time comes to shelter these innocents. We regret that this appears to be imminent.”

“The international community must understand that the minorities will not be able to withstand another serious conflict inside Iraq, especially any conflict that takes place within the fragile homelands of the Christians and Yazidis,” the archbishop warned. “In this, the full removal of armed militia units and the re-establishment of substantive, formal and legitimate government control and security is paramount. Continuing tension that results in serious conflict in these areas would mark the end of all efforts to return and instead mark the beginning of an exodus of minorities that no one could control.”

Staff writer Lauretta Brown writes from Washington, D.C.