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The Kurdish People: A Background and History
The Kurdish Partnership ^ | Matthew Hand and Mark Brockman

Posted on 04/07/2004 7:54:38 PM PDT by xzins

"No Friends but the Mountains"

The Kurdish people comprise a large ethnic group of about 25 million that have always lived in the same place, and trace their roots back to the Medes of ancient Persia more than 2,500 years ago. In fact, the Magi, or "wise men" who traveled from the east to deliver their gold, frankincense and myrrh to the newborn Jesus at Bethlehem were most likely Zoroastrian priests, forbears of the modern Kurds. The Kurds are tribal people, many of them lived, until recently, a nomadic lifestyle in the mountainous regions of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Their refuge has always been the mountains, with their steep pastures and fertile valleys.

Historical Background

For nearly 3,000 years the Kurds have lived along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the cradle of civilization. This places their beginnings at the very source of the nations and in the immediate vicinity of history's most important events. (A few selections would include the creation of man, the Garden of Eden, Noah's Ark on Mt. Ararat in northern Kurdistan, The Tower of Babel, the calling of Abraham, the Babylonian Exile, and much more.) The Kurdish belief that they are the descendants of the biblical Medes reflects this rich background. They base this claim on geographical, linguistic and cultural factors, and they have a strong case.

The most significant biblical passage about the Medes is the prophecy of Isaiah found in chapter 13 and 14, a judgment against Babylon. This is followed up in the fifth chapter of the book of Daniel, the famous text concerning the mysterious handwriting on the wall. Daniel, in his eyewitness report, tells us that the Medes overthrew Babylon on the night of the feast: "That very night Belshazzar, the Chaldean king, was killed, and Darius the Mede received his kingdom, being about 62 years old."

Perhaps the most unique and striking feature in the historical development of the Medes and the Kurds was the advent of their religion, a very early form of Zoroastrianism. The Mede's ancestors were garden-variety pagan polytheists, worshiping a gaggle of war gods called deavas. About the fifth or sixth century BC, perhaps earlier, a prophet named Zoroaster (sometimes called Zarathustra) gained prominence in what is now Kurdistan. Zoroaster did not claim to be anything special himself. His emphasis was on the natural revelation found in creation and on the conscience. He maintained that anyone could know the truth about God through these means, an argument very similar to that put forth by Paul in Romans 1:18ff.

Zoroaster also taught that "one who embodies all truth" would be born of a virgin and would become the eternal King of Kings, bringing justice for the oppressed and finally putting an end to the Lie and all its horrible consequences. Ultimately, there would be a resurrection of the dead to judgment and an everlasting "new day," a strikingly similar concept to the Bible's teaching on the Kingdom of God.

His followers became known as the "Maz Maga" meaning "Great Benevolence," reflecting the newfound truth that the true God was good and trustworthy. The Zoroastrian priestly class were called the Magi, and it may be reasonably surmised that the birth of Jesus was revealed to them because of the teachings of their religion. Thus the New Testament opens with a visit from these "wise men:" "After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi came from the east to Jerusalem and asked, 'Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.' " (Matt. 2: 1-2)

The Kurds and Islam

It has been said that Kurds "hold their Islam lightly," meaning that they are not so vehement about Islam and do not identify as closely with it as the Arabs do. This is perhaps due to several factors: one being, many Kurds still feel some connection with the ancient Zoroastrian faith, and feel it is an original Kurdish spirituality that far predates the seventh century AD arrival of Muhammad.

Nonetheless, most Kurds are Muslims, and about 75% today are at least nominally members of the majority Sunni branch. As many as four million Kurds are Shiites, living mostly in Iran where the Shiite faith predominates. However, the Kurds generally strive to express their Islam in a distinct fashion. For example, the Sunni Muslim Kurds of Turkey have adopted the Shafi'i legal code, ignoring the general rule among the surrounding Arabs and Turks, who adhere to the Hanafi school. Mystical practices and participation in Sufi orders are also widespread among Kurds. Many of these orders are considered heretical by rigid orthodox Muslims. Drawing heavily on shamanism, Zoroastrianism and elements of Christianity, Kurdish mysticism places emphasis on the direct experience of God through meditation, ecstatic experiences and the intercession of holy men or sheiks. Most Kurds possess a tangible sense of the supernatural, readily acknowledging demonic activity in the form of evil spirits and curses; they often worship at shrines or other holy places.

The rest of the Kurds are followers of several indigenous Kurdish faiths of great antiquity and originality. The most notable of these are the Yezidis. Although often charged with worshiping Lucifer, the Yezidis embody a distillation of the Jewish, Deavic, Zoroastrian, Christian and Islamic beliefs which have consecutively ruled their mountainous homeland for three millennia. Central to the Yezidi cosmology is the Heptad, a group of seven archangels through which God is said to delegate his authority. Although statistically small in number, the Yezidis are a source of great pride for Kurds of every tradition.

Throughout the Middle East, smaller communities of Jews, Christians and Baha'is also consider themselves Kurds. Israel's 150,000 Kurds constitute the greatest concentration of these non-Muslim groups. The Kurdish Jews emigrated to Israel in the 1950s, having lived in Mesopotamia since the Assyrian exile: "The king of Assyria carried the Israelites away to Assyria, settled them in Halah, on the Habor, the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes." (2 Kings 18:11) Like the Yezidis, the Israeli Kurds are highly regarded throughout Kurdistan.

Kurdish Areas: Today and Tomorrow

Like most of the Middle East, the areas where the Kurds live is in turmoil. Among the four countries where most of the Kurds reside, the situation is as follows:

  • Turkey: There are about 13 million Kurds in Turkey, and this represents about 55% of the total Kurdish population.

  • Iran: With a population of 5.7 million, Iran contains about 23% of the Kurdish nation.

  • Iraq: The 4.2 million Kurds in Iraq constitute about 17% of the Kurdish total.

  • Syria and Lebanon: A much smaller group of Kurds live in Syria, perhaps about one million.

The Church Among the Kurds

The Kurds have been called one of the world's largest groups of unreached peoples. However, the Book of Acts indicates that this was not always the case, recording the presence of "Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia" at Pentecost. Precisely how many Kurds followed in the footsteps of the Magi is unknown. Most early Zoroastrian converts to Christianity gradually lost their ethnic identity and merged with the Aramaic-speaking milieu of the early Eastern church or with the Armenians, another Zoroastrian nation turned Christian. However, as late as the 10th century, the Arab geographer al-Masudi wrote about tribes of "Christian Kurds."

Whatever the extent of early Christianity in the Kurdish areas, the dust cloud of Islamic conquest has forever obscured it from our view. Faced with fierce resistance from the Kurds, Muhammed's successor, Omar, embarked on a ruthless campaign of what can only be described as spiritual genocide. Omar destroyed some 4,000 churches, synagogues and Zoroastrian temples in and around the Kurdish areas, slaughtering religious leaders as he went. He also ordered the destruction of all non-Muslim literature. "If these documents are contrary to the Qur'an they are bogus," he declared to his generals, "and if they agree with the Qur'an, they are irrelevant; in either case, they should be destroyed." Thus, the spiritual famine of the Kurds was ensured for more than a millennium.

It was only in the late 1800s that Christianity finally awoke to the Kurd's need for the gospel. This concern found expression at the historic Edinburgh missions conference of 1910. This conference, the first to examine the cause of completing the Great Commission, assigned the Kurdish field to the Lutheran Church. Consequently, the Lutheran Orient Mission Society was formed, and the first missionary team to the Kurds was dispatched to Mahabad, in the Kurdish area of Iran. The New Testament was translated into Kurdish for the first time, and several small Kurdish fellowships were established before political circumstances and war conspired to uproot the Christian missionaries. LOMS continued to operate in Iraq through the 1950s and also in Gorve, Iran, until the Ayatollah Khomeini forced them out in the late 1970s. This effectively closed all Christian work among the Kurds.

In spite of these setbacks history seemed to be preparing the Kurds for a strategic convergence with the Kingdom of God. In the 1980s, thousands of Kurds began to express a strong disaffection for Islam. The youth especially gravitated to communism and agnostic ideologies, while Islam was increasingly seen as a tool of Arab and Turkish oppression. That this widespread alienation could be translated into an opportunity for the gospel was demonstrated in the aftermath of the Gulf War, when Kurdish areas suddenly opened to Christian relief agencies. The next five years witnessed the birth of a modern church, indigenous leadership and a restoration of the Bible to Kurdish areas. At the same time, the majority of Kurds, who live outside of Iraq, also began to respond to the gospel in unprecedented numbers. Today, thousands of New Testaments are in use by Kurdish seekers and converts.

However, the church is still small and vulnerable throughout the Kurdish. The number of baptized church members is only in the low hundreds, yet thousands have responded to literature campaigns and personal evangelism. Therefore the challenge of discipleship and forming an appropriate church structure is especially critical at this stage of development. The thousands of active seekers, many of whom already consider themselves Christians, have to be brought along to the point of baptism and fellowship. If this can be achieved, the potential of the Kurds to impact the Middle East is tremendous.

Mission strategists long ago recognized that the Kurds are a regional catalyst. Their native Mesopotamia has driven the events of the Middle East since the dawn of recorded history. Straddling political and cultural borders and equally comfortable in Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Hebrew, the Kurds could well become the evangelists of the Near East. "The air is pregnant with change," said a leading Kurdish politician, who is now a Christian. He is the son of a Yezidi who converted to Islam and became a Muslim priest before his conversion to Christianity. "If you are willing to make a genuine commitment of personnel, time and money, you will see a hundred thousand Kurds come to Christ in less than five years." Let's hope that his assessment of the church among the Kurds is accurate, and that we can meet his call to action.

Prayer Concerns

  • The long spiritual history of the Kurds, with its roots in monotheistic Zoroastrianism, seems to be on a theological trajectory toward the Kingdom of God. Now that the gospel has established a beachhead among the Kurds, pray that there would be a massive turning to Jesus Christ as the only one who will not turn his back on these oft-betrayed people.

  • Christian Leadership: In Turkey the many contacts, disciples and seekers need to find a structure that suits their unique culture and migratory habits. Pray for a strong, wise leadership among the Kurds in Turkey. In Iraq, the existing church leadership is facing a terrific challenge: the foreign workers who nurtured them have been forced to leave, and believers themselves face the threat of Saddam's reprisals; pray for their deliverance. Many of these leaders are actively seeking an opportunity to escape. Mission leaders need wisdom as they respond to this situation, and the Kurdish leaders need a sense of direction as they face the future.

  • Refugees: Vast refugee populations in Iran, Iraq and Turkey, perhaps a total of more than three million, face ongoing hardships with winter coming and an uncertain future. Several avenues are open for Christian ministry in some of these communities. Pray for the hapless refugees and especially the Christian ministries and clinics who are operating among the Kurds.

  • Harvesters: Seldom could a field be described more accurately as "ripe for the harvest." The Kurd areas face an acute shortage of laborers and platforms for service. Pray for open doors to accompany the open hearts of the Kurds. Pray for finances, laborers and new opportunities for field workers in countries that do not allow missionary activities.

(Published with permission)

-Researched and written by Matthew Hand and Mark Brockman

Abdul-Kader Amin, ed., Kurdish Proverbs (Brooklyn: The Kurdish Times, 1989)
John Bullock and Harvey Morris, No Friends but the Mountains: The Tragic History of the Kurds (London: Viking Press, 1992)
The Economist, May 11, 1996 and August 10, 1996
John Guest, The Yezidis (London: KPI, 1987)
Internet web sites on Kurdistan:
"A Land of Stones," Time, March 2, 1992
McDowall, David, A modern History of the Kurds (London and New York : I.B. Tauris, 1996)
The National Geographic, August 1992
Yedidut (the journal of the Israeli-Kurdish Friendship League), May 1996.

Special thanks to the Bible Lands Association and the Lutheran Orient Mission Society. For additional information about the Kurds, their spiritual pilgrimage and how you may get involved, write to: Bible Lands Association, 900 Seminole Dr., Ft. Pierce, FL 34982. Email:

Copyright © November 1996 The Sentinel Group

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1 posted on 04/07/2004 7:54:39 PM PDT by xzins
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To: Revelation 911; The Grammarian; SpookBrat; Alamo-Girl; betty boop; Dust in the Wind; maestro; ...
In fact, the Magi, or "wise men" who traveled from the east to deliver their gold, frankincense and myrrh to the newborn Jesus at Bethlehem were most likely Zoroastrian priests, forbears of the modern Kurds.

In light of the Kurdish Peshmerga assisting in Fallujah, it is good to have an understanding of the Kurdish background.

This was written by a Christian missionary agency interested in the Kurds, but it has some serious insights that are helpful for all.

2 posted on 04/07/2004 7:58:31 PM PDT by xzins (Retired Army and Proud of It!)
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To: All

He Pledges his Allegiance to the Left

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3 posted on 04/07/2004 8:00:12 PM PDT by Support Free Republic (Hi Mom! Hi Dad!)
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To: xzins
The long spiritual history of the Kurds, with its roots in monotheistic Zoroastrianism, seems to be on a theological trajectory toward the Kingdom of God. Now that the gospel has established a beachhead among the Kurds, pray that there would be a massive turning to Jesus Christ as the only one who will not turn his back on these oft-betrayed people.

There used to be a lot of Zoroastrians in Iran before the Carter brought the Shah down!

4 posted on 04/07/2004 8:00:42 PM PDT by TrueBeliever9 (aut viam inveniam aut faciam)
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To: xzins
A fascinating read....thanks for the ping!
5 posted on 04/07/2004 8:04:51 PM PDT by JulieRNR21 (One good term deserves another! Take W-04....Across America!)
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To: dennisw; Cachelot; Yehuda; Nix 2; veronica; Catspaw; knighthawk; Alouette; Optimist; weikel; ...
If you'd like to be on or off this middle east/political ping list, please FR mail me.

Here's hoping democracy works out in Iraq, but if not, the Kurd's deserve a state in the northern third or so far more than the beneficiaries of the "road map".

6 posted on 04/07/2004 8:05:32 PM PDT by SJackson (America...thru dissent and protest lost the ability to mobilize a will to win, Col Bui Tin, PAVN)
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To: Pharmboy
bookmark for later
7 posted on 04/07/2004 8:05:47 PM PDT by Pharmboy (History's greatest agent for freedom: The US Armed Forces)
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To: xzins
A very interesting article! Thanks for the ping!
8 posted on 04/07/2004 8:06:31 PM PDT by Alamo-Girl (Glad to be a monthly contributor to Free Republic!)
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To: xzins
Thank you for posting this ... another gem at FR.
9 posted on 04/07/2004 8:09:11 PM PDT by MHGinTN (If you can read this, you've had life support from someone. Promote life support for others.)
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To: xzins
Thanks for info.
I tried to find info on Kurd history as I have traveled
in the area.
10 posted on 04/07/2004 8:10:28 PM PDT by HuntsvilleTxVeteran (I may grow old but I will never grow up:) 64 going on 19)
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To: JulieRNR21
I agree with you. There is a possibility here, it seems to me, of a real connection between the Kurds and anyone who takes them seriously. Maybe that can be the U.S.
11 posted on 04/07/2004 8:12:03 PM PDT by xzins (Retired Army and Proud of It!)
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To: xzins
Bump for a good later read...
12 posted on 04/07/2004 8:15:26 PM PDT by Victor
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To: Alamo-Girl; betty boop; TrueBeliever9
A biblical quote for those who have interest:

King Darius (the Mede) made... "a decree that in every dominion of my kingdom men must tremble and fear before the God of Daniel. For He is the living God, And steadfast forever; His Kingdom is the one which shall not be destroyed, And His dominion shall endure to the end. He delivers and rescues, And He works signs and wonders in heaven and on earth. Who has delivered Daniel from the power of the lions" - Daniel 6:26-27

13 posted on 04/07/2004 8:15:42 PM PDT by xzins (Retired Army and Proud of It!)
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To: xzins
Thank you so much for the passage!!!
14 posted on 04/07/2004 8:28:27 PM PDT by Alamo-Girl (Glad to be a monthly contributor to Free Republic!)
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To: All

Geographical Kurdistan

"WELCOME TO KURDISTAN!" - [View Map - 1945]

A huge sign in large black English, Arabic and Kurdish letters introduces visitors from Turkey to a vast mountain area of northern Iraq, inhabited by some 4.5 million Kurds. Recently this area was the scene of a near genocide launched by Saddam Hussein against his enemies, the Kurds.

Although the world's attention has recently been focused on the Kurds of northern Iraq, Kurds live in numerous other countries of the Middle East, Central Asia, Europe, and North America.

After the flood God blessed Noah and his sons and told them to "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth", this blessing was passed directly onto Noah's sons and their sons. Madai who was a son of Japheth was therefore blessed with land directly from God. This was the homeland of the Medes (Kurds). Historically the Medes are known as the "lazy son", as they are the only descendants of Japheth son of Noah, who have remained in the Middle East. All of Japheth's other sons moved into Europe. As a result of the blessing of this land directly from God, the Kurds have remained in this land even with invasions from the Arab, Ottoman, Mongolian, Russian and British Empires.

The traditional Kurdish territory also houses many historic places as mentioned in the Bible.

Including Mt. Ararat, the place where Noah landed after the flood.

Kurdistan is the geographic area, which is home to the majority of Kurds. It was named for the first time in the twelfth century by the Seljuk Turks to identify the region under their control, which was inhabited by Kurds. If the Middle East map were to be redrawn to give the Kurds their own boundaries, Kurdistan would be as large as France, stretching over 200,000 square miles and encompassing six countries. Of the worldwide population of nearly 35-40 million, over 36 million Kurds are unevenly distributed between Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Kurdistan is a rugged, mountainous region, much of which is covered with snow for over half the year. Three large river systems; the Arax, Tigris and Euphrates create fertile valleys where Kurds farm and pasture sheep, goats and cattle. Much of the oil in these countries is found in Kurdistan.

Ruled by the governments of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world without a state of their own. If it were ever to separate from these various regimes and gain independence, Kurdistan would be the third most populous country in the Middle East after Turkey and Iran.

Kurdish territory has fluctuated throughout history, experiencing numerous expansions and contractions due to wars, deportations and forced resettlements. Yet incredibly, Kurds have clung to their mountains, against all odds. They have struggled time and time again to preserve their ethnic identity and their freedom of self-determination.

Turkey has the largest share; with 40% of the world's Kurds living in the south east of the country, and comprising 20% of Turkey's population. It is the agricultural section of Turkey, which produces most of Turkey's meat, grain, vegetables and dairy products. Over two million now live in Istanbul alone, 75 miles from their homeland.

Iranian Kurds make up 12% of the population. Since 1960, land reform has allowed 30% of the Kurds to buy land. A high percentage lives in an urban setting and work in industrial jobs. Kurds of eastern Iran live along the Central Asian and Afghan borders more than 600 miles from their traditional homelands in northwestern Iran.

Along the western border, in the most rugged part of Kurdistan, Kurds reside in small villages of under 2 000 people. A few maintain the semi-nomadic lifestyle of their ancestors. In general, the area is wooded and twice as densely populated as the rest of Iran. The Kurdish Luri was forced to set aside their Kurdish identity by the Iranian government. These people make up a population of 5 million in the west and the south west Iran.

The Kurds of Iraq live along that country's northeastern borders with Turkey and Iran. Most are farmers and all but a few thousand have given up the semi-nomadic lifestyle of the past in favour of settled farming. This region of Kurdistan is fertile with cold and snowy winters. The Kurds of Iraq form more than 30% of the population. The Iraqi government declared war against the Kurds. That war was called (Anfal). The name was taken from the Koran in the book of Islam. In this war 200 000 people were killed and 5000 villages and towns were destroyed.

The Kurds of Syria make up about 10% of the population. They live in two separate enclaves along the northern border with Turkey. In an effort to dilute the Kurdish population, Syria has deported large numbers of them, perhaps 100 000 or more, into southern Syria and settled Arabs among them. By forcing Kurds to resettle outside their home areas, the Syrian government hopes to assimilate them into larger Arab society and thus avoid their potential threat.

Although some Kurds moved to Turkstan in the 1500s, large numbers of Kurds emigrated in the late 1800s and early 1900s as refugees from the wars between Ottoman Turkey and Tsarist Russia. The distinct Kurdish communities of Central Asia are separated by religion, place of origin and vast distance. Still, many look toward Kurdistan, maintaining traditional custom and dress.

Lebanon often became a haven for Kurdish political dissidents who were persecuted in their homeland. However, since the Lebanese War started, most Kurds have moved out of Lebanon to Syria and other countries.

The small Kurdish community of Amman, Jordan is made up of mostly those who have fled from Iraq following the Gulf War. They do not exceed 10,000 in number. Most were farmers, but have had to adapt to city life. They are refugees in a city of refugees. (Amman has large communities of Palestinian refugees.)

Over half a million Kurds live and work in Europe, for the most part in Germany.
Since the recent Gulf War, some five thousand Kurds have entered North America as refugees.
About 15,000 Kurds are reported to have immigrated to Australia.

15 posted on 04/07/2004 8:30:31 PM PDT by xzins (Retired Army and Proud of It!)
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I didn't fix the links in the above article, so I just posted their graphics here.

16 posted on 04/07/2004 8:35:03 PM PDT by xzins (Retired Army and Proud of It!)
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To: xzins
Genetically, the Kurds are essentially indistinguishable from Jews.

17 posted on 04/07/2004 8:41:58 PM PDT by ChicagoHebrew
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To: xzins
In fact, the Magi, or "wise men" who traveled from the east to deliver their gold, frankincense and myrrh to the newborn Jesus at Bethlehem were most likely Zoroastrian priests, forbears of the modern Kurds.

In fact, Scripture does not state they came from the east, it implies their origins (homeland) is in the east.
18 posted on 04/07/2004 8:50:31 PM PDT by snerkel ("He's not coming back to preach!")
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To: xzins
Good post. Bookmarked for further perusal.
19 posted on 04/07/2004 10:45:04 PM PDT by radu (May God watch over our troops and keep them safe)
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To: SJackson
20 posted on 04/07/2004 11:58:30 PM PDT by lainde (Heads up...We're coming and we've got tongue blades!!)
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