Turkey President Tayyip Recep Erdogan told media at the White House Wednesday that Turkey will restore damaged Syrian churches as Christian communities along the border in Northeastern Syria are feeling vulnerable due to the Turkish incursion.
Erdogan met with United States President Donald Trump and a group of GOP senators on Thursday in a widely publicized meeting that was reportedly held to “clear the air” amid congressional criticism of Turkey’s military operation in Northeastern Syria.
Operation Peace Spring, launched last month after Trump announced a pullback of U.S. troops from the region in question, targets Kurdish fighters once backed by the U.S. in the battle against the Islamic State. The Turkish government accused the Turkish-led Syrian Democratic Forces of being terrorists because of links to Kurdistan Workers’ Party, also known as the P.K.K.
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Since the operation commenced, tens of thousands Syrians have been displaced from their homes and Turkish-backed Arab forces have been accused of targeting civilians.
During a press conference at the White House, Erdogan was asked specifically by a reporter if he could guarantee that Turkey will protect Christians in Northeast Syria amid this “realignment.”
In September at the United Nations General Assembly, Erdogan proposed a plan to take control of a large chunk of territory on the Syrian side of the border that runs 18 miles deep by nearly 300 miles long in hopes of resettling millions of Syrian refugees living in Turkey. As NBC News foreign affairs analyst Brett McGurk pointed out, the size of the “safe zone” includes “all majority Kurdish and Christian areas of Syria.”
The reporter told Erdogan that groups on the ground are reporting that attacks against Christians have increased and Christians are no longer feeling safe in the area previously protected by the S.D.F.
The reporter even mentioned the fact that an Armenian priest and his father were murdered while a deacon was wounded in an attack claimed by the Islamic State in the Northeastern Syrian city of Qamishli just this week.
Erdogan thanked the reporter for the question and assured that his government is “especially sensitive” and has “plans” in place to help Christians remaining on the Syrian side of the border who have seen their churches and sanctuaries destroyed by the violence.
“[They] will see their sanctuaries getting revived and their churches will be reconstructed so that they can go back and start praying there again,” Erdogan said, according to his translator.
“These are the plans that we are making for them. As I said before, the Christian minorities — Aramaic, Catholics, Chaldean, Yazidi — the ones who are living on our side of the border have no problems whatsoever. But the ones remaining on the side of the Syrian territory will see their worshiping practices restored and revived in a special manner.”
Erdogan also assured that the Christian communities are also “receiving health care and humanitarian aid in every aspect possible.”
While Erdogan claims that he will protect Christian communities in Northeast Syria, past actions by his administration have displayed a level of hostility to Christians, including the two-year imprisonment of U.S. missionary Andrew Brunson. Brunson claimed earlier this year that the Erdogan government has deported dozens of foreign Christian leaders and their families.
“Turkish President Erdogan claims that he will work to protect Christians in the Middle East. Among the numerous Turkish crimes over the years, Erdogan's recent actions in Northeast Syria prove his words are nothing short of lies,” tweeted In Defense of Christians, a leading Christian persecution advocacy organization. The tweet included the hashtag #TurkeyisNOTourfriend.
Last May, IDC reported that its website had been hacked by agents it believes were acting for or on behalf of Turkey after it held a Capitol Hill briefing to call out human rights issues in Turkey.
Trump’s meeting with Erdogan was met with criticism by human rights activists and others who condemn Turkey’s military operations in Northeast Syria.
“So hard to watch Kurds, Christians & Yazidis being attacked by Turkey in NE #Syria while President #Erdogan is in our country,” Nadine Maenza, a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, tweeted. “They are guilty of war crimes against civilians. Time for sanctions and a no-fly zone.”
Five Republican senators met with Erdogan at the Oval Office Wednesday. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, pressed Erdogan, saying "we do not want to see Turkey engage in offensive action against the Kurds,” according to CNN.
However, Erdogan reportedly pushed back claiming that Turkey is going after “terrorist organizations” that are offshoots of the P.K.K.
Erdogan reportedly showed the senators on an iPad what media reports are calling a “propaganda” video depicting the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, which leads the SDF, as terrorists.
Graham also pushed back on Erdogan’s claim that Turkey had done more to contribute to the fight against the Islamic State.
"I let Turkey know that 10,000 SDF fighters, mostly Kurds, suffered, died or injured, in the fight against ISIS, and America will not forget that and will not abandon them," Graham told Axios.
During the press conference, Trump praised Erdogan and even said that he is a “big fan.” At one point, Trump even asserted that he thinks Erdogan has a “great relationship with the Kurds.”
“Many Kurds live currently in Turkey, and they’re happy, and they’re taken care of, including health care — we were talking about it before — including health care and education and other things, so that’s really a misnomer,” Trump said.