An Uncertain Future
The Tigris and Euphrates rivers spring from Kurdish east Turkey, winding their way through the old Mede mountains and on through today's Iraq, the Babylon of old. Haran, the place where Abraham lived before moving to the promised land, and the place where both Isaac and Jacob got their wives, is now in Turkish Kurdistan, on the Syrian border.
Our group travels through one of Turkey's main Kurdish areas, the Ararat Mountains, along the border of Armenia and Iran. Few places on earth have seen as much bloodshed. In the early 20th century, 15 million Armenians--the ancient Christian people in the Middle East--were killed here and around Turkey by Turkish troops. To this day Turkey denies the massacre.
During the last several decades the Ararat Mountains became Kurdish guerilla land, the rocky maze of jagged lava blocks providing ideal passes for the Kurdish rebel group PKK--the Kurdistan Workers' Party--and other Marxist groups moving into Turkey from their bases in Iran.
Kemal was born and raised in these mountains. In the 1970s, while he was still a Marxist and before his imprisonment--after which he found his Messiah--he slipped through the mountains with his secessionist team several times.
"My team never killed anyone," Kemal points out. "Our propaganda against the Turkish government was very tough, but we never killed anyone."
There are many stories of PKK holdups and abductions along the Ararat border road, and there is no Turkish driver willing to take us on it. We hire a Kurdish driver, and after countless hilly curves and many Turkish-army checkpoints we reach Van, the city of Kemal's conversion, and an important trade center--primarily for heroin being smuggled from southwest Asia to western Europe.
In the last 10 years there has been an influx of displaced Kurds into Van, the 250,000 to 500,000 refugees nearly tripling the city's population. On the green fields below the city's historic castle we have tea with a family that moved in just a few years ago. Under our feet--literally--are the overgrown remnants of the Armenian city of Van, demolished 80 years ago.
The patriarch of our Kurdish hosts, while seeing to it that one of his daughters keeps the samovar boiling and the tea glasses filled, tells his family's story of recent violence and destruction.
"We used to live in the mountains north of Iraq," he says. "Along our road the Turkish army demolished 30 villages just a few years ago. We had no option but to move here."
With strong intensity, the father explains that he used to own 500 sheep, a fortune in a land where even a 100-sheep family is considered well-off.
"We are doomed to trumpery vending in the streets," he says of his family's life now. His message is clear: Poverty, as bad as it may be, is bearable, but the humiliation is not.
During an all-night dinner interrupted by spontaneous folk dancing in a Van restaurant, Kemal adds to the ongoing tale of violence against the Kurds by relating his own experience with an evil so inhumane that it forced him even as an atheistic Marxist to start reckoning with an unseen, spiritual reality.
In the early 1980s Kemal was arrested and charged with "Kurdish terrorism." For 90 days, during interrogations, he suffered daily torture. Afterward he was sentenced to a four-year term at the Diyarbakir prison--"The worst of them all," he says.
His torturing never ceased--"It turned monthly rather than daily," Kemal says--but he explains that he was not crushed by what was done to him personally. "They destroyed me in another way," he adds, lowering his voice and eyes.
It happened one day when Kemal and the other Kurdish inmates were forced to witness the prolonged torturing of a young Kurdish woman, who was stripped naked, humiliated and tormented beyond description by the Turkish soldiers.
"We got wild," he says quietly. "We just lost it."
The prisoners rioted and set fire to the prison. As a result, treatment improved for a while, but Kemal makes it clear something died within him that day.
After his release he met Matthew Hand on a Van street corner--and hope returned to his heart. He recalls that one of the first Bible passages to catch his attention was Jesus' command to love your enemies. He had not seen a statement like that before.
"There is no such thing in any other religion," he says, "nor any place around."
For Kemal, because of his personal background and the sociopolitical conditions of his people, the gospel deals as much with everyday life as with life after death. He preaches a lifestyle of righteousness, peace, sharing and purity. Over and over again he condemns the violence against his own people, but he also speaks out against the flourishing narcotics trade in Van and other places in Turkey. Hypocrisy and lack of integrity upset him--wherever he spots it.
"In the mosques the Muslims sound OK, but on the outside it is all forgotten," he says.
The materialism and lack of sexual decency in the West appall the Kurdish apostle, especially their presence in the Western church. When John Snider asks a couple of the Kurdish high school girls who are sponsored by the Lutheran Orient Mission Society whether or not they watch television as much as American girls do, Kemal jumps in. He paraphrases Philippians 4:8, exhorting the girls not to "fill themselves up with crap" but to "choose the good and the pure."
If these girls and the rest of the young Kurdish church keep making that choice, Matthew Hand dreams of big things happening. Hand sees the potential these nomadic people have to spread the gospel beyond Turkey. He envisions a day when Kurdish believers will be sent out to touch the entire conflict-laden Middle East with the conciliatory love of the Messiah.
"The Kurds are at home in most of the nations of the Middle East," he says. "Culturally, they would be the ideal lifestyle evangelists."
Pointing others to Christ comes easy for these people who proved centuries ago that they know how to find the Son of God. It was 2,000 years ago that the first Magi of these lands pursued and found the Messiah. Today their descendants--the Kurds of the Middle East--are doing the same. *
Tomas Dixon is a journalist based in Sweden who covers stories for Charisma from a variety of locations in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
Risky Faith in Turkey
It's not easy for those who are called to pastor churches among the displaced Kurds
A man named Nusret pastors a rare fellowship within the Kurdish underground church in Turkey. It is one that meets for ordinary church services and has a modest facility of its own.
During Charisma's recent visit with pastor Nusret in Turkey, he was baptized by the Rev. Marvin Palmquist of the U.S. Lutheran Orient Mission Society. Baptisms are high-risk in Turkey and still relatively rare, but Nusret says that he "feels secure" nonetheless. Recently, in fact, he says he saw the Lord in a vision.
"In my vision Jesus was tall and dark, with a wild-looking hair style! He looked like a [traditional] Kurd and had a Kurdish staff in his hand," Nusret explains.
At first, Nusret did not recognize the man in his vision and says that he "did not look like the pictures of Jesus that I had seen in Western literature." But when the man sat down next to him and stroked his hair with "fatherly love," Nusret says, his eyes were opened, and he saw that it was the Messiah and that He was embracing him and his people.
Nusret's fellowship is in western Turkey, not in Kurdistan proper, and security controls are less harsh. "I meet regularly with some 15-20 Kurds for worship and Bible study," he says. Evangelism is relationship-based.
"Everybody I meet with and everybody who drops by my office hears about my faith," Nusret says. "I tell them that Islam is not the original religion of the Kurds. I tell them about the Magi, and I tell them about the Messiah."
Nusret says that educated people, including many Kurds serving as Muslim priests, or imams, "catch on easily, and respond readily" to his message. He ranks "ignorance and lack of education" as the main obstacles to the gospel in Kurdistan. This, he explains, is because to the illiterate, his message of history and national identity doesn't always seem relevant at first.
Nusret found his Messiah through a God-scheduled appointment about seven years ago. He was hanging out in a Kurdish refugee slum area one day when he noticed a group of foreigners clustering on the next street corner. All kinds of gatherings are outlawed in Kurdish areas, and Nusret knew the Turkish military might show up any minute.
Wanting to help the group avoid trouble, he quickly called the foreigners into a nearby café. They turned out to be Christians who were on a prayer tour.
"We were aware of the risk to be spotted by one of the military patrols, but sensed that we should remain in that corner all the same," one of the foreigners, American Matthew Hand, recalls. Hand is the author of a booklet titled Who Are We? which presents the story of the Magi and the belief that the Medes-Kurds have a place in God's salvation plan. More than 60,000 of the booklets have been distributed to Kurds.
"Well, then Nusret turned up seven copies," Hand says . He immediately asked us if we knew about Zoroaster and the Magi. I showed him the booklet on the Magi and the Messiah that I had written."
Nusret gave his life to Jesus and soon developed into a leader in the Kurdish church.
"Politically and socially my people have little to hope for," he told Charisma, "but in the Messianic perspective the next 10-15 years are bright indeed." *
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