The airstrikes and artillery bombardments had barely begun in the Syrian city of Qamishli, just across the border from Turkey, when Bassam Ishak's cellphone began ringing.
"People were so scared," Ishak said. "They were telling me, 'They are bombing us right now!' "
Ishak, a Syriac Christian leader, was in Irbil, Iraq, monitoring developments along the Syria-Turkey border.
"The attacks are widespread," Ishak told NPR by phone. "They are targeting residential areas in Qamishli, where people of all religious backgrounds live. We think this is a message to the Kurds and Christians there to leave, so Turkey can move refugees there. We think it's a form of ethnic cleansing."
By Thursday, Turkish ground forces had reportedly seized at least one village from Kurdish fighters in Syria, and the U.N. refugee agency reported that thousands of people were fleeing the Turkish advance.
Turkey launched its incursion into Syria three days after President Trump told Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that U.S. troops stationed along the border would be withdrawn. About 40,000 or 50,000 Christians live in the area under attack, according to Ishak, president of the Syriac National Council of Syria, and U.S. Christian leaders have been almost unanimous in criticizing what they see as Trump's acquiescence to the Turkish move.
"What a disgrace," tweeted Russell Moore, head of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. "Kurdish Christians (and others among the brave Kurds) have stood up for the United States and for freedom and human dignity. ... What they are now facing from Erdogan's authoritarian Turkey is horrifying beyond words."
Psalm 73:11- “And the wicked say, ‘God does not see; God does not know what is happening.’”— Russell Moore (@drmoore) October 9, 2019
This is wicked and unjust, and is seen by a God who will have the last word.
What a disgrace.
Among those Christian leaders now criticizing President Trump are several evangelicals who have been loyal supporters, including Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham.
"The Kurds are the ones who have been leading the fight against ISIS," Graham tweeted. "Pray for the Christians who the Kurds have been protecting. They could be annihilated. Would you pray with me that @realDonaldTrump will reconsider?"
The Kurds are the ones who have been leading the fight against ISIS in Syria. Also pray for the Christians who the Kurds have been protecting. They could be annihilated. Would you pray w/me that Pres. @realDonaldTrump will reconsider? Thousands of lives hang in the balance. 2/2— Franklin Graham (@Franklin_Graham) October 9, 2019
Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network, went so far as to warn earlier this week that Trump was at risk "of losing the mandate of heaven."
Faced with such criticism, Trump on Tuesday released a statement defending his decision to pull U.S. troops out of the way of the Turkish advance.
"The United States does not endorse this attack and has made it clear to Turkey that this operation is a bad idea," Trump said. "Turkey has committed to protecting civilians, protecting religious minorities, including Christians, and ensuring no humanitarian crisis takes place—and we will hold them to this commitment."
Trump's statement, however, did not reassure Tony Perkins, the evangelical leader Trump chose as chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
"I do not have a high level of confidence — in fact, I have no confidence — that Turkey will preserve true religious freedom or protect those religious minorities," Perkins told NPR."We could see another genocide in that region."
Just a year ago, Perkins negotiated with Turkish authorities to secure the release of Andrew Brunson, a U.S. evangelical Christian pastor who had been imprisoned in Turkey for two years.
As the USCIRF chairman, Perkins has advocated for religious freedom in the Middle East. The Kurdish-controlled area of northern Syria is one of the few places where people of different faith traditions have lived together.
"Our concern is that this emerging model could be lost," Perkins says. "You actually have Muslims who have converted to Christianity, and others, and they're openly practicing their faith. They become targets, and the concern is a kind of a domino effect with the Turkish forces focusing on the Kurds. [When] the Kurds flee, the Christians become vulnerable."
Most Christians in the Syrian province of Hasakeh, the focus of Turkish attacks, have fled during the past eight years of fighting in Syria, according to Ishak.
"If they keep targeting this area, it won't take much to force those who are still there to leave," he said.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Today, Turkey launched its long-expected offensive on Kurdish-controlled areas in northern Syria. The attack comes just three days after President Trump ordered U.S. troops out of the border region. The Kurds are U.S. allies. They have been protecting religious minorities in Syria. NPR's Tom Gjelten says the president's order has angered U.S. Christian leaders.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Organizations following the fighting in Syria over the past eight years have been especially concerned about attacks on Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities, largely carried out by ISIS. Those minorities have found refuge in areas of Syria controlled by Kurdish forces, but that's precisely the part of Syria now targeted by Turkey.
TONY PERKINS: We're getting reports that some of these villages are being shelled; they're being bombed. And there's a lot of concern among these Christians in particular that we're hearing from.
GJELTEN: Tony Perkins is an evangelical Christian leader now chairing the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. He was appointed by President Trump, but Perkins is among those U.S. Christians worried about the effect in Syria of Trump's pullback of U.S. troops.
PERKINS: We could see another move of genocide in that region.
GJELTEN: The concern is that the Kurdish forces who've been protecting Christians and other minorities may now be pushed aside. Thousands of ISIS prisoners now under Kurdish control could be left unguarded. President Trump has enjoyed almost unlimited support from evangelical Christian leaders, in part because his administration has highlighted the persecution of Christians around the world. But by giving an apparent green light to this Turkish invasion, Trump's reputation has been tainted.
Here's evangelical Pat Robertson speaking Monday on his Christian Broadcasting Network.
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PAT ROBERTSON: I want to say this with great solemnity. The president of the United States is in danger of losing the mandate of heaven if he permits this to happen.
GJELTEN: That criticism is echoing across the U.S. Christian world. Russell Moore, who heads the policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, said today the U.S. failure to push back against the Turkish attacks is a disgrace. Our brothers and sisters in Christ, Moore tweeted, are among those targeted for slaughter. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham today called for a day of prayer for the Kurds now up against Turkish forces. In his broadcast today, Pat Robertson seconded Graham's call to stand with the Kurds.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ROBERTSON: They are our allies and our friends, and we absolutely cannot abandon them.
GJELTEN: Still more criticism today from Franklin Graham, until now one of President Trump's most loyal supporters in evangelical circles. In a tweet, Graham said, would you pray with me that President Trump will reconsider? Thousands of lives hang in the balance.
Faced with such criticism, President Trump today defended his move. In a statement, he said, the United States has made it clear to Turkey that this operation is a bad idea. Turkey, he said, has committed to protecting civilians, protecting religious minorities, including Christians. And we will hold them to this commitment, he said.
But at the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom, Tony Perkins, long a Trump ally, isn't all that hopeful that Turkey will heed the president's word.
PERKINS: I do not have a high level of confidence - in fact, I have no confidence that Turkey will preserve true religious freedom or protect those religious minorities.
GJELTEN: All this pushback from evangelical leaders over Trump's Syria move doesn't necessarily mean he will lose evangelical support come election time. Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, is quoted in a new book today saying that American evangelicals have a moral obligation to back President Trump enthusiastically.
Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.