In November I was given an amazing opportunity to go to the middle east, specifically Kurdistan in northern Iraq and Syria. I first met my Kurdish friend “Jorin” when he was visiting Thailand last year. He told me about how he became a Christian a few years ago. There are very few Kurdish Christians, and Jorin was persecuted and driven from his home and community. However, Jorin is a joyful child of God, and he has a resilient drive to share the gospel of Jesus with his own people.
The Kurdish people have a long and proud history (descended from the Medes – how cool is that!). However, they have suffered under the hands of dictators and tyrants for decades. The Kurds were massacred by Saddam Hussein in the 90s. In recent years, they were bombed and driven from their homes by the Assad regime from the south, massacred by ISIS between 2011 and 2019, and then driven from their villages in the north when Turkey invaded Kurdish Syria in 2019. Many communities are still in ruins – airstrike craters and homes pockmarked with bullet holes. Others are starting to rebuild, but it’s slow progress. Life is difficult. So many people are still displaced. There is hunger, sickness, and lack of resources. Many people are disillusioned by Islam – especially after ISIS. “They need Jesus”, said Jorin. “Come with me to Kurdistan, meet my people, and let’s give them Jesus. It is the only thing that will really help them.”
So, in November I landed in northern Iraq. We spent a few days there, and then we drove to the Syrian border about 4 hours away. After the immigration checkpoint, we were met on the Syrian side of the border by some friends of Jorin. They joined us on the journey to help with translation, navigation, relationships, and just to be with us. One young man, named Daryan, a former soldier and a Muslim joined us. He became a dear friend quickly. More about him below!
Our plan was simple: Drive to various broken Kurdish communities through north Syria, meet people, build relationships, share the gospel – and see what doors God opens. And that is what we did. Driving across the Syrian desert in between towns was beautiful. It was like looking out at the ocean, but it was all brown and sand as far as you could see. The two- or three-hour drives between each stop was a wonderful time to bond and talk about religion – and listen to way too much country western music (apparently Kurds love country western!)
When we arrived in a community, we were first welcomed by both military and religious leaders. We always told them that we are Christians, and that we wanted to share the good news about Jesus. It was really amazing for me to see that not only did they always give us permission, but they also asked us to explain it to them as well. In every community, we were able to tell mayors, imams, and military commanders about Jesus. After that, we usually gathered the children of the community and did a short VBS style program. We taught songs with actions, performed Bible skits, and through smiles and laughter we pointed to Jesus. In IDP communities, there is often a lack of structured education and gathering due to fear and lack of hope. For the parents, it brought them joy to see their children smiling and laughing and dancing. And this opened more doors for us to talk about Jesus to the parents afterwards. In one community, after the children’s program, we were invited by the community and religious leaders and several parents (about 40 people) to teach the main points of Christianity to them. This was well received, and the questions that followed showed there was a real interest.
Some communities were less receptive. For example, in Raqqa, the former capital of ISIS, we were received with more suspicion, but we were able to meet some local Christians and encourage them. In Raqqa, almost 10,000 Christians were executed by ISIS in 2017. There are only a few Christians left now, but they are starting to grow again in numbers. Things are better, but Christians still live in the shadow of death threats (the outside of the church is covered with anti-Christian graffiti and death threats), but they insist on worshipping regularly and in public. Fear is real, but they are not led by fear. They are led by a tenacious hope, strong faith, and deep love. This was inspiring.
In about two weeks we covered most of northern Syria from Kobani to Raqqa to Baghuz along the Euphrates, and a string of other communities. I was astounded by the open doors we had everywhere, the hunger for the Gospel at all levels, and the ability to form relationships with invitations to come back and keep following up. For my friend Jorin and other local Christians, it was a wonderful opportunity to encourage them and pour into them a deeper understanding of God’s word. I was absolutely encouraged and inspired by them as well. This trip was driven by their desire to plough new soil, go where no one has gone before, and in joyful obedience plant the gospel wherever God allowed. He allowed more than we could have asked or imagined!
One thing I especially cherished from the trip was new and deepening friendships that pointed to Jesus. The one that stood out the most was with Daryan who I mentioned above. As we traveled from place to place, we usually found ourselves sleeping in mean accommodations. Often, we stayed in military barracks of the various militias that guard the Kurdish people – some were not in great shape. Daryan likes to wake up early, make Turkish coffee, listen to classical music, and meditate. As a fellow early bird, I usually joined him in the pre-dawn. As we sipped coffee and listened to music, we would watch the sunrise over the desert and talk about God. I usually shared passages from Psalms which he really liked. One night, the only “room” available was a trench next to a defensive barricade built as a crude shelter against rocket attacks. This brought back memories of his days as a soldier and sometimes needing to shelter in place due to incoming rockets or mortars. He said that usually it was just lots of waiting and not much sleep, but sometimes rockets came close and it always made him re-evaluate the meaning of life. Our night sleeping in the trench was cold, uncomfortable, and sleepless! At about 03:30, Daryan said, “Sleep is a lost cause. How about some Turkish coffee?” “Yeah, no brainer!” I replied. This trusty ex-soldier found a way to boil water and make a pot of Turkish coffee in the trench. By 04:00 we were enjoying Turkish coffee, talking, reading the bible, and then repeating the process. By 06:30 we were out of coffee, but we had bonded deeper as friends and had trust and confidence to talk candidly about the thing that matters most – Jesus. One thing I learned from Daryan, is that while most Muslims highly respect Jesus as God’s messenger, they do not see him as more than that. Daryan asked me point blank, “Why do you insist on seeing Jesus as more than a messenger?” My reply was, “Because he is more than a messenger. Jesus introduced himself as true man, true God, and the lamb of God who saves his people from their sins. I know our religions say different things about this, but I’m sharing this with you not to win an argument. I’m sharing this because I love you as a friend, and knowing Jesus the way He wants to be known is something that will change your life for eternity. That truth has blessed me, and I want you to know that blessing too.” Daryan just looked at me stunned, but then he hugged me and thanked me for my friendship and honesty. We had many more conversations about Jesus before we parted ways at the Iraqi border. It was hard to say goodbye to him and to everyone who had accompanied us in Syria. For Daryan, there was no confession of faith, but a testimony that our conversations about Jesus had a profound impact on him, and he hoped we would be able to keep talking about it. Thanks to social media, we can – and we are! So, the conversations and the friendships go on. We are already talking about the next trip – praying that there will be a next trip (details TBD if God opens another door).
One thing I learned (or relearned) on this trip was that deep friendships and profound gospel moments do not need to take a long time. When you allow yourself to just be with people, dedicate your time and attention to them, and be with them on their terms (in a desert, in a trench, whatever), and you are honest about who you are (a child of God), it is hard for solid friendships not to happen. The other lesson I learned is that opportunities to talk about Jesus are there sooner than you probably think. So, pray always for the opportunity, and then take the risk and say something. Jesus is with you, he has your back, and he is great at making friends quickly with your friends too.