The Magi and the Messiah

The Kurds are one of the largest people-groups in the world without a state of their own. They forcibly were converted to Islam a thousand years ago but have been persecuted by Muslim regimes ever since. Some 25 million Kurds live in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria.

In the 1980s Sadam Hussein's Iraq destroyed 4,000 Kurdish settlements, displaced 500,000 Kurds and killed 200,000. In Turkey, home to 13 million Kurds, government forces have since the 1980s evacuated 3,000 Kurdish villages, razing many of them, and displaced 3 million Kurds, according to Turkish government figures. All Kurdish areas in Turkey are under military law.

Small wonder that the Kurds, under such circumstances, are less than zealous adherents of Islam and desperately in search of a future that offers them hope.

Hope is coming to them through what Kemal discovered in 1987 and what he now tells his people while traveling across Turkey. It is that the Magi of Matthew's Gospel were Medes, or spiritual heirs of the Medes--ancient Kurds who both anticipated and found the Messiah.

He tells modern Kurds that until their ancestors' forced conversion to Islam about A.D. 900, they practiced the Mede religion Zoroastrianism. It foretold the coming of a righteous man, born by a virgin, who was to usher in a "new day" on which the creator of good would defeat all forces of evil.

This Messianic anticipation had been the focus of the Mede New Year celebrations for centuries before the birth of Christ. These forebears of the Kurds became the first Gentiles to recognize and worship the Messiah. Medes even were among the 3,000 converts on the first day of Pentecost in Jerusalem (see Acts 2:9).

But God's involvement with the Medes goes back even further. In 539 B.C. they conquered Babylon and allowed the captive Jews to return to Jerusalem. The Bible states that the Medes were God's chosen instrument. The Scripture calls the Medo-Persian ruler Cyrus a "messiah"--one anointed by God--the only Gentile ever given that title.

Today's Kurds listen spellbound to this story. It reawakens for them a long-forgotten destiny. They sense it might be the key to re-establishing the national identity that has been denied these persecuted people for a thousand years--and still is today.

Kemal preaches about the Magi and the Messiah wherever he can. An ideal setting is a Kurdish wedding, which lasts for days. He preaches at political rallies too, but most of the time he meets with people in homes and caf├ęs or on street corners. No formal church services are allowed.

The Kurdish church is young but actively involved with humanitarian aid and social development. Supported by the St. Paul, Minnesota-based Lutheran Orient Mission Society, it sponsors a carpet factory for Kurdish women. Scholarships are provided for high school girls who otherwise would be doomed to illiteracy, marriages arranged for money and a lifetime of meager chores.

The social involvement is an important way for Kurdish believers to show Christ's love. After the major earthquake in Turkey last summer that killed more than 17,000 people, Kemal became known as the Mesiji, Turkish for "Messiah's guy."

More than 60,000 copies of a booklet titled Who Are We?--which presents the story of the Magi and the possibility of the Medes-Kurds having a place in God's salvation plan--have been distributed. It was written by Matthew Hand, an American who is Kemal's mentor and co-worker in Kurdistan. Hand is the person who first told Kemal about the biblical heritage of the Kurds and Medes.

Literate Kurds run for the booklet, although mere possession of it can lead to charges of treason or torture and imprisonment. All things Kurdish--humanitarian, religious and political alike--are generally forbidden in Turkey.

When asked about the number of Kurdish believers, Kemal comments that under the current social conditions there is no way to satisfy the Western appetite for statistics. He estimates some 500 Kurds are "moving along the way of the Messiah" under his personal mentorship.

In addition, tens of thousands have accepted the booklet, he says, at high personal risk. A leading Kurdish politician, now a believer, said a few years ago that "a hundred thousand Kurds [would] come to faith in five years or less" if the church made a "genuine commitment of people, time and money."

Hand, who also is a director in the Lutheran Orient Mission Society and the Israeli-Kurdish Friendship League, confirms that "a majority of Kurds under [age] 40 are negative to Islam and actively seeking for a new religion." He adds that he is "very impressed" with the level of commitment to "exploring and trying out" the gospel truths among Kurds in Turkey today.

"I wonder how many American evangelicals would keep Christian books if they risked torture for it," says Hand, who lived in the Middle East between 1982 and 1999. "In Turkish Kurdistan we cannot print our booklet on the Magi fast enough to satisfy the demand."

Charisma recently accompanied Kemal, Hand, and president John Snider and directors Marvin and Eileen Palmquist of the Lutheran Orient Mission Society from one end of Turkish Kurdistan to the other. It was a journey steeped in biblical history. These are the lands of the Garden of Eden and the fall; the flood and Noah's ark; the captivity of God's people; and the cradle of man-made, or Babylonian, religion.

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