Tuesday, March 20, 2018

RLPB 447. TURKEY IN SYRIA: Afrin falls; Christians imperilled (plus update on Pastor Andrew Brunson)

Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | RLPB 447 | Wed 21 Mar 2018

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-- plus update on Pastor Andrew Brunson, imprisoned in Turkey

by Elizabeth Kendal

The mostly Kurdish city of Afrin, in the far north-west of Syria's Aleppo Province, fell to Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces on Sunday 18 March. Conflict monitors report that Turkey's eight-week campaign to capture Afrin has cost the lives of more than 280 civilians, more than 1500 Kurdish and allied fighters (including a British volunteer, 26-year-old Anna Campbell) and more than 400 pro-Ankara 'rebels'. According to the Turkish Armed Forces, only 46 Turkish soldiers died in the campaign. Sources report that, apart from Turkish regular troops and special forces, some 25,000 fighters fought under the banner of the FSA, most of whom are battle-hardened Islamists who have previously fought alongside al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS). As reported in RLPBs 439 (24 Jan) and 440 (31 Jan), Afrin's minority mostly Armenian and Assyrian Christians sounded the alarm back in January, warning that the spectre of a Turkey-backed Islamist jihadist ethnic-religious slaughter loomed over Afrin.

Christian Kurds appeal for prayers
 and support
(Afrin, 2 Feb)
Despite having been used by the US as the club with which to smash IS in northern Syria, the Kurdish YPG and the mixed Kurd-Arab-Christian SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) found themselves abandoned in Afrin. Lacking any anti-aircraft weapons, YPG and SDF commanders appealed to the US and UN for assistance, in particular for the skies over Afrin to be declared a no-fly zone. Their cries were in vain. On 20 February Syrian government troops deployed to help the Kurds defend Afrin were routed, with dozens killed in a barrage of Turkish shelling and airstrikes. On 24 February the UN Security Council issued a resolution calling on Turkey to implement a ceasefire so that humanitarian aid might go in and civilians might get out. Turkey ignored the resolution. The Apostolic nuncio to Syria, Cardinal Mario Zenari, described the situation in Afrin as 'hell on earth' and the worst violence he had ever seen.

Flag of Turkey flies in northern Syria.
Turkish Radio and Television (TRT)
Abandoned, encircled, out-gunned and facing the prospect of a protracted and exceedingly bloody urban conflict, the YPG and SDF withdrew -- along with tens of thousands of civilians -- before dawn on 18 March, enabling the Turkish and FSA forces to enter Afrin unopposed. After brief celebrations, the occupying forces set about looting every home and store in the city. The Kurds have vowed to commence a guerrilla-style fight-back against the occupiers, promising to be 'a constant nightmare for them'.  Now that the city (just 40km north-west of Aleppo) has been ethnically cleansed, Turkey's Islamist and neo-Ottoman 'Sultan' Erdogan plans to fill it with Syrian Arab Sunni Islamists who will serve his interests. Erdogan wants to extend his control all the way to the Iraq border. The next town on the agenda is Manbij, which the US-backed SDF liberated from IS in August 2016, and in which come 2,000 US special forces troops remain stationed.

Before Afrin fell, veteran Middle East reporter Dale Gavlak warned that Turkish-backed jihadists were insisting that there will be no room for Christians in Afrin. Kurds (including Yazidis) and Christians (most of whom are Armenian and Assyrian) have now been 'cleansed' out of Afrin. After speaking with local aid workers and human rights activists on the ground, Gavlak reported on 16 March, 'Jihadists allied with Turkey are hunting down religious minorities to kill them in Syria's north-west ... Turkey is using hardline jihadists proxies, including Islamic State and al-Qaeda militants, to eliminate the presence of Kurds and other ethnic and religious minorities along its border.' The situation is dire. Those who remember the Armenian Genocide may well have a sense of déjà vu.


* the Lord our Good Shepherd will gather up his children like precious lambs and lead his flock to safety, providing all their needs along the way. (Isaiah 40:10-11)

* our merciful Lord Jesus will make his presence known amongst his traumatised people; may those who are wounded experience healing; may those who grieve and are traumatised be comforted; and may those who are discouraged find reason to hope.

'The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.' (Lamentations 3:22-23 ESV)

* God Almighty, our Heavenly Father, will display his awesome power and sovereign authority and intervene in Syria and wider Mesopotamia, to the benefit of his faithful people.

' ... not by their own sword did they win the land, nor did their own arm save them, but your right hand and your arm, and the light of your face, for you delighted in them.' (v3, from Psalm 44:1-8 ESV)


On 18 March Syria's mostly Kurdish city of Afrin fell to Turkish-backed forces. Fighting alongside Turkish regular troops and special forces were some 25,000 Free Syrian Army fighters, mostly battle-hardened Islamists. Though backed by the US when smashing IS in Syria, the Kurdish YPG and Kurd-Arab-Christian Syrian Democratic Forces found themselves abandoned in Afrin. Though Syrian government forces came to assist, they were routed in a barrage of shelling and air-strikes. Hundreds of civilians have been killed and wounded; many thousands are now displaced from what had long been one of Syria's great safe havens. Sources on the ground report that 'Jihadists allied with Turkey are hunting down [Christian and other] religious minorities to kill them in Syria's north-west [and] along its border'. Please pray for Syria and its Christians!


Pastor Andrew Brunson in prison
(courtesy World Witness)
Article on prison visit
Pastor Andrew Brunson (50) and his wife Norine (American citizens) had raised a family and ministered in Izmir, Turkey, for more than two decades before being arrested and threatened with deportation in October 2016, in the wake of the failed July 2016 alleged Gülenist coup against the Erdogan government. [Background, RLPB 367, Turkey: Christians Face Elevated Risk (20 July 2016).] Brunson has now been in detention for almost 18 months. When representatives of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) visited him on 5 October 2017, they found him in shock, bewildered, distressed and thin, having lost some 22kg (50lbs) primarily due to stress.

On 16 March the Second High Penal Court in Izmir Province accepted the indictment against Brunson prepared by the Public Prosecutors Office. Brunson is accused of carrying out espionage and organisational activities on behalf of the Gülenist movement, which, ever since his spat with Fethullah Gülen, Erdogan has deemed it to be a terrorist organisation. Prosecutors are demanding at least 35 years in prison: 15 years for 'committing crimes on behalf of terror organisations without being a member' and up to 20 years for 'political or military espionage'. Soner Tufan, spokesman of the Association of Protestant Churches in Turkey, described the ludicrous charges as 'an insult and offence to reason'.

In September 2017 President Erdogan openly and unashamedly linked the plight of Pastor Brunson to that of the Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, who has lived in self-imposed exile in the US since 1999. Erdogan offered to trade with the US, essentially saying you give us our 'pastor' [Gülen] and we will give you yours [Brunson]. As noted in RLPB 389 (21 Dec 2016) Brunson's situation 'is dire'.

* May the Lord sustain, comfort and encourage Pastor Andrew Brunson both in prison and throughout his trial. May all lies and injustices be exposed and denounced. May Pastor Brunson be vindicated, released and reunited with his family.


Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. She serves as Director of Advocacy at Canberra-based Christian Faith and Freedom (CFF), and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.

She has authored two books: Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Melbourne, Australia, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).

See www.ElizabethKendal.com