We are all familiar with the statistics from the ongoing Syrian civil war. Over 2 million Syrians have fled their country. These refugees now live in neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Kurdistan (northern Iraq).
Over 200,000 of these refugees now reside in Kurdistan, where World Compassion focuses our relief efforts.
Serving Syrian refugees living in Kurdistan offers many benefits over other countries in the Middle East. Often we are asked, “Why do you work in Kurdistan?” Here are a few reasons why:
1. ENFORCED FREEDOM OF RELIGION
Kurdistan is an autonomous federal region in northern Iraq and is governed by its own constitutional laws and parliament. Freedom of religion is written in the Kurdish constitution and is publicly supported by many members of the fledgling government.
The Minister of the Interior of Kurdistan, Karim Sinjari, stated in a meeting with my father and founder of World Compassion, Dr. Terry Law, “We will protect Christians and any Muslim who chooses to change their religion.” This isn’t just a written law or political speak; it is a cultural change that is being walked out “on the streets” in Kurdistan.
One leader of a refugee camp (who is also a police officer), has become a good friend through our food distribution program. Recently he made Jesus the Lord of his life. It was through his experience with the World Compassion team, providing relief to the refugees over several months that helped pave the way to his decision to accept Christ.
This friend was managing a food distribution to Syrian refugees when he was confronted for distributing The Story of Jesus booklets and Bibles with the food. The man told our team – “you can not give these items here, this is a Muslim nation.” Our friend, still a new believer responded swiftly, “This is Kurdistan and we have freedom of religion. We have the right to hand out these materials and tell people about Jesus.”
This may seem small to those of us living in countries that are free, but it is a large victory to see this constitutional law being enforced “on the streets” in Kurdistan (northern Iraq). Freedom of religion in the Middle East is not going to happen overnight, just as Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of seeing African Americans in the U.S. treated fairly took decades. It’s a process.
In the same meeting between Dr. Terry Law and the Minister of the Interior, the Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani expressed that he felt Kurdistan was America’s success story for the lives that were lost during Operation Iraqi Freedom (the Iraq war in 2003).
With 10 years of experience working in Kurdistan, we have seen the Kurdish people be very open to the Gospel message. They are a friendly people who always welcome us to their country. They seem to be open to “new ways of thinking.”
Yes, it might take years, probably even decades, to see true freedom of religion realized in the the heart of the Middle East, but if the church does not help to advance it’s message because it’s difficult, then it will never happen. We are the vessel God has chosen to deliver the Good News.
2. FASTEST GROWING ECONOMY
Another reason we believe Kurdistan is key to reaching the Middle East with the Gospel is it has one of the fastest growing economies anywhere in the Middle East.
Cranes cover the skyline working to construct new Western style shopping malls and luxurious hotels. While the rest of Iraq may be struggling economically, the Kurdish region is booming due to the tremendous oil wealth and foreign investment they receive, and their commitment to building a safe society. Many Kurds like to refer to the capital city of Erbil as “The New Dubai.”
The foreign investment is possible because of the safety and stability in the region. The Kurdish regional government wants everyone to know Kurdistan is safe and they are welcome to come. This economic boom has a message hidden inside – hope. People who have hope are open to new ideas and ways of thinking. We are seeing this in Kurdistan today.
The vast majority of Syrian refugees living in Kurdistan are in fact Syrian Kurds. These refugees now have access to the Gospel, which was not possible in Syria.
This traumatic, life-altering experience for the refugees, although tragic, has provided tremendous opportunity for The Body of Christ to respond to their physical needs and present the Gospel to them in bold fashion.
It is human nature for mankind to remember the person or people who help them in their most desperate times. This is a desperate time for millions of Syrians. It’s also an opportunity for The Body of Christ to respond strategically in force to be the ones that help these people during the most difficult time of their life. The church, the face of Jesus on the earth today, can be the one these refugees remember who helped them.
3. AN OPEN DOOR
While the world waits and watches for a political solution – someone to rise to the occasion and be the hero that stops the fighting in Syria – The Church has an opportunity to rally and respond to the innocent civilians, to be their hero by meeting their needs and showing them the peace and hope found only in Jesus Christ. The solution is not so much political as it is spiritual.
In our meetings with Kurdish officials, they even expressed the need for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like World Compassion, stating, “We can not provide for these refugees alone. Our government is incapable of responding to their growing needs.” We have been given an invitation and an open door to come into this region of the Middle East and be the hands and feet of Jesus. Will we walk through the door?
This is a historic opportunity for the Body of Christ to rally together, providing relief for Syrian refugees and empowering the local church to establish new churches among those reached.
World Compassion has been working in Iraq for over 10 years and is uniquely positioned with relationships in the highest levels of government and local Christian pastors throughout Northern Iraq. We are eager to rally the Church to help seize the opportunities before us by strategically coordinating efforts. Together, we can “be the hero” for the people of Syria.