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Incomparable Wonders in Kurdistan

My traveling companion, Biblica CEO, Carl Moeller, and I serve with Sandy in an organization that is passionate about providing the Bible to people around the world so they could have the opportunity to be transformed by Jesus Christ. We know this new translation has taken nearly three decades to complete. What we aren’t clear about is why it is so critical to the Kurdish people at this point in time.

Propped awkwardly against a white, plaster wall, seated on a long, maroon-colored pillow that has been positioned on the floor of the sparsely decorated living room, I accept a tiny glass of steaming-hot tea and take a handful of the mixed nuts being offered to me.

Our host, a Scottish man named Sandy, who has a clean-shaven head and a friendly, Jimmy-Stewart-like demeanor, is seated on a matching pillow on the floor across the room, telling us why the newly published Bible he is holding in his hand is so very important. My traveling companion, Biblica CEO, Carl Moeller, and I serve with Sandy in an organization that is passionate about providing the Bible to people around the world so they could have the opportunity to be transformed by Jesus Christ. We know this new translation has taken nearly three decades to complete. What we aren’t clear about is why it is so critical to the Kurdish people at this point in time.

The newly released Sorani Kurdish Bible.

In an effort to answer this question, Sandy soon starts explaining the various dialects of Kurdish. “There’s Sorani. There’s Badini,” he’s saying. “Then there’s Kurmanji Kurdish for the people in Turkey, using the Latin script. And then there’s Kurmanji, Northern Kurdish, in Russian script, for the Kurds living in Armenia.”

He is still unraveling the differences between these branches of the language when our hostess, Sandy’s wife, Kirsten, returns with more tea and nuts. I thank her and politely take some of each – even though I’m not hungry or thirsty. I’m not even sure what time of day it is. After more than 24 hours of travel, I am thoroughly jetlagged and feel like we are existing in some sort of geographical limbo.

The sun is setting outside, the last rays of light glinting through the large front window, and the adhan (Islamic call to prayer) is being issued from a nearby mosque. This only adds to the sense of disorientation.

Where are we?

A large mosque in downtown Erbil.

The answer to this question is more complicated than it seems. We are actually in two places at once. According to our airline tickets, we are in Iraq – a destination the U.S. State Department describes as “very dangerous,” not only urging citizens to avoid this region, but adding that those who disregard the warning are putting themselves at “high risk” for terrorist violence. There is also a detailed disclaimer that says, in effect, if you get kidnapped, you’re on your own.

But we aren’t really in Iraq. We’re in Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan: an autonomous region spread across Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Though not officially a nation, it has its own government, culture, and security forces. In fact, the Iraqi Army is forbidden by law from entering Kurdistan. Instead, its borders and interior are policed by the Peshmerga (“those who face death”), a band of Kurdish warriors with a well-deserved reputation for being fearless in battle.

Highway signs showing the way to various cities in Iraq.

Unlike the images we see in the media of empty, bombed-out concrete buildings and grand structures filled with intricately decorated Islamic arches (think Bagdad), Erbil is a modern metropolis. On the ride from the airport, we saw many newly established businesses and stores – including a multi-story Ikea and a Bugatti dealership. We also passed a half dozen partially-built shopping malls that had, according to Sandy, been put on hold. The economy in Erbil, he informed us, mirrors that of many cities in Texas, following the rise and fall of the price of oil. Recent construction reflects the enthusiasm of the last boom period, which was followed by a rather severe crash.

Erbil’s modern, international airport.

Fighting now to remain conscious, to somehow overcome the nine-hour time difference, I watch through heavy eyelids and try to listen as Sandy explains that there are several Kurdish Bible translation projects currently underway. The Sorani, which he has played an important role in completing, will serve the largest population – a group estimated to be somewhere between five and seven million people.

One of the biggest hurdles the Bible faces in Kurdistan, Sandy says, is the accusation that it has been corrupted. The need to translate it at all is cause for suspicion for many Muslims. Their “holy book,” the Qur’an, was reportedly delivered to Mohammad in Arabic and remains in that language today. Why must the Bible be translated out of the original Hebrew and Greek, they wonder? And if it is, doesn’t that mean it can be (or has already been) mistranslated and filled with errors?

The good news is that while the majority of the Kurds are Muslim, they tend to be nominally so. Most are more concerned with being Kurds. And they have good reason. The history of this people is much longer and more colorful than a single religion.

First mentioned in ancient Sumerian documents from 3,000 BC, the Kurds were already known for being herdsman and fierce warriors. Their homeland soon became part of the Bible narrative – the land where Abraham sojourned and Jonah prophesied (Nineveh was located near modern day Mosul).

Boxes containing the new Sorani Bible.

Erbil (also known as Irbil, Arbil, and Hewler) is believed to have been inhabited as early as 5,000 BC. It was part of the Assyrian, then the Median Empire. History scholars will remember that the Battle of Gaugamela, which pitted Alexander the Great against Darius III of Persia, took place near Erbil.

Some believe that the Magi who arrived from the East to greet and worship Christ at his birth were Kurds.

The apostles Thomas and Thaddeus brought Christianity to the Kurdish people in the first century AD. In his book, The Miracle of the Kurds, author Stephen Mansfield reports, “Their work began proving successful just twenty years after the crucifixion of Jesus. The Christian communities these apostles founded in what is now Iraq and Iran have continued with varying degrees of vitality and influence to this day.”

Islam arrived in the 7th century, replacing Zoroastrianism as the main religion of the region. But as Mansfield notes, “…A vigorous Christian community continued.”

It was a Kurd – Saladin – who led the Muslim armies against the Crusaders and recaptured Jerusalem. Yet despite this, the people of the region remained Kurds first and Muslims second.

As a familiar Kurdish poem puts it,

Who am I, you ask?

The Kurd of Kurdistan…

I am the vigilant fighter of the mountains

Who is not in love with death

But for the sake of life and freedom

He sacrifices himself,

So the land of his ancestors,

The invincible Medes

His beloved Kurdistan,

May be unchained.

Immediately after World War I, it looked as though Kurdistan would finally be “unchained.” The Treaty of Sevres (1920) promised them their own homeland. But the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire soon led to the Turkish War of Independence. A new treaty was signed in 1923. It simultaneously created the modern republic of Turkey and left the Kurds without a country. The Kurds responded by revolting and were brutally repressed. So began their century-long struggle for independence.

After several other setbacks, the Kurds supported Iran in the war against Iraq. In 1983, an Iraqi bodyguard-turned-four-star-general meted out revenge for this by attempting to eradicate them. He did this through the Al-Anfal, a genocidal campaign that included dropping chemical weapons on their villages. The former bodyguard’s name was Saddam Hussein.

Hussein exterminated nearly 200,000 Kurds and destroyed 5,000 of their villages. When he and his regime were finally defeated, the Kurds once again hoped to have their own homeland. But then the Syrian civil war broke out and hundreds of thousands of refugees poured across the border into Kurdistan. ISIS also began wreaking havoc with their terrorist activities, internally displacing tens of thousands of Kurds.

The supervisor of a newly opened school for refugee children.

It’s really no surprise that, through the centuries of trials, tribulations, and upheaval, no one ever managed to translate the Bible into Sorani, the most spoken Kurdish dialect. Translation work had been started in the 1850s, but wars and strife kept work to a minimum. It wasn’t until almost a century and a half later, in 1990, that the Gospel of Luke was finally completed.

Around that time, the Gulf War and the no-fly zone helped open the region to evangelism and the newly published Gospel was widely circulated. The church was greatly encouraged.

It would be another 27 years before the full Bible was translated into Sorani Kurdish.

And that accomplishment – the publishing of the full Bible in Sorani Kurdish – was why we had traveled more than 6800 miles and were now struggling to stay awake on the floor of Sandy’s living room in Erbil. This first-ever translation would be launched in less than 48 hours and thereby released to the people of Kurdistan.

I reposition myself and hear Sandy telling us that one of the local Christian fellowships learned about the translation and asked for advance copies. And Sandy gave them some. “They’ve been waiting thousand of years,” he says he reasoned, “why make them wait any longer?”

On their first Sunday of having God’s Word in their heart language, the pastor taught from Joel, the congregation following along in the Old Testament for the first time.

Another incredibly important aspect of this new Bible, Sandy is saying, is that it will help preserve the Sorani language. After having Arabic taught to their children for years, the Kurds are returning to Sorani, their hope being that speaking and reading this language will solidify them as a people and culture.

That’s why, according to Sandy’s estimates, somewhere between sixty and eighty percent of those attending the translation launch will be Muslim. (As the Area Executive Director for Biblica’s Middle East/North Africa area would later observe, “This is the first time in history that such a thing has happened!”) The reason is that the Islamic community sees the value of having a holy book in the language of the people and recognizes that it will help preserve not only their language but their cultural identity. Which is why it will be made available in the libraries and in many schools.

The light is gone now and the air coming through the open window is surprisingly cool. Darkness has swallowed the surrounding buildings. My stomach is growling – not so much impatient for the dinner we will be eating later as it is confused. There is no part of me that knows what time it is or where I am.

Strong, Turkish-style coffee – a popular drink in Kurdistan.

I sit up a little straighter and focus on Sandy as he continues to expand on the significance of this translation – the decades of work involved, the fact that members of the translation team sacrificed greatly to finish the project, the strange but wonderful reception of this Bible in the Islamic community… And suddenly I am impressed by what a privilege it is to be here. Not having participated in the translation work, never even having visited this part of the world before, I get to be present to witness an unprecedented event.

Maybe it’s the jetlag or the fact that I haven’t slept in about 30 hours, but I begin to be overwhelmed by the fact that God’s Word will be available to these people for the first time. The first time in all of history!

The Kurds already have a rich tradition of Christianity. But imagine what will happen now. With the Bible in Sorani, the church will undoubtedly flourish. Muslims will come to Christ. Believers will grow in their faith. Because of the work of Sandy and his team, there will be a great harvest of souls – men, woman, and children worshipping the God who loves them. And one day, we’ll get to meet them in heaven.

That vision continues to float in my slightly muddled brain as we rise, put our shoes back on, and shuffle out the door, into the crisp night air. With the vision comes a verse: “Many, Lord my God, are the wonders you have done, the things you planned for us. None can compare with you; were I to speak and tell of your deeds, they would be too many to declare.” —Psalm 40:5 (NIV)

That’s the way I feel tonight. God is at work – accomplishing so many things on so many levels that sometimes we can’t fully grasp them. But one thing is clear: He is doing incomparable wonders in Kurdistan.

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