Image: REUTERS/Bing Guan

By Alex Pollock

Kurdish rights groups and a prominent Sunni cleric critical of Iran’s government said the regime had stepped up suppression of anti-government protests in the country’s Kurdish region, deploying troops and killing four demonstrators on Sunday [20 November]. Several people posted unverifiable images and videos online, saying they showed Iranian military vehicles pouring into the western city of Mahabad. The Norway-based human rights group Hengaw said that military helicopters carried in members of the Revolutionary Guards to quell the protests in Mahabad, which were particularly intense earlier this week. Hengaw also said Iranian forces opened fire in the town of Marivan. A prominent Sunni cleric, Molavi Abdolhamid, a powerful dissenting voice in Iran, called on security forces to refrain from shooting people in Mahabad. Iranian state media did refer to the unrest in Kurdish regions but on Sunday only said that calm had been restored in the area. Also on Sunday, authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan reported Iranian military strikes against Kurdish groups across the border that killed at least one person, events that could be linked to the unrest within Iran. Iran’s “Revolutionary Guard Corps have again bombarded Iranian Kurdish parties,” the counter-terrorism department of Iraqi Kurdistan said, without mentioning if there were casualties. The Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI) said Iran had targeted it using missiles and drones in two places, Koya and Jejnikan, near Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. (Deutsche Welle) 

Who are the Kurds?

The Kurdish people are an ethnic group of between 25-35 million people from the Middle East region. Their exact origin is disputed, but they make up the fourth-largest ethnic group in the region and are the largest ethnic group to not have their own nation-state. The Kurds are united by a common language (even though there is no standard dialect), culture, and distinct community aspects. Most of them adhere to Sunni Islam, although there are small populations of Christian, Shia, Jewish, and Yazidi Kurds as well. Prior to the first World War, the Kurds held much influence in the Middle East. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, the draft of the Treaty of Sevres included an autonomous Kurdistan region. However, that treaty was never ratified and was eventually replaced by the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, which excluded the right of an autonomous Kurdistan. After modern borders were drawn following the war, Kurdish land was divided between Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. Since then, many Kurdish nationalist groups have formed with the goal of finally attaining an autonomous state. 

Why is Iran blaming the Kurds for its unrest?

The Iranian government and its country’s Kurdish population have a long and often turbulent history. Like the Kurdish populations in each of the other countries they inhabit, the Iranian Kurds have faced much state repression, and have often been blamed for trying to incite unrest. Following the death of Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish woman in Iran, for violating the country’s dress code, Iran has experienced three months of intense internal and international condemnation for its treatment of people. While some analysts admit that some Kurdish groups may have taken the opportunity to step up their activity level against the Iranian government, many claim that Iran’s effort to blame the Kurdish people for trying to take down the government is widely baseless. Iran’s crackdown on the protesters has been severe in several Kurdish-majority cities. In the third week of November, a Kurdish human rights group in Iran reported 42 civilian deaths at the hand of Iranian security forces or members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Another 1,500 people in Kurdish areas have been injured by security forces. However, a lack of media coverage from these areas makes it difficult for news sources to verify the details of what is happening on the ground. The Iranian government has countered the accusations of violence by blaming the killing of civilians on ‘Kurdish separatists’. 

Iran has retaliated against the ‘separatists’ by also launching attacks into Iraqi territory. The IRGC released a statement on 14 November informing people of its intent to carry out “missile and aerial drone attacks against headquarters and centres of anti-Iranian separatist terrorists based in the Kurdistan region in northern Iraq.” 

Iraqi Kurdistan and the Turkish Kurds

Iraqi Kurdistan is the closest the Kurds of any country have come to claiming their own land, operating an autonomous region in northern Iraq. Iraqi Kurdistan gained autonomy in 1992 and includes the regions of Irbil, Sulaymaniyah, Duhok, and Halabja. Despite gaining autonomy from the Iraqi government, the Kurdistan region has remained tumultuous. During the first Gulf War from 1990-1991, over 1.5 million Kurds fled Iraq into Turkey, and in turn, Turkey closed its borders, stranding Kurdish refugees until the United Nations stepped in. 

The Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Turkey, yet they have also faced years of state repression. Until the 1990s, the Kurdish language was banned, along with Kurdish publications, television programmes, and Kurdish cultural activities. This widespread repression led to an uprising by the Kurdish community in 1984 in which over 40,000 Kurdish people were killed. Since then, a Kurdish separatist movement has emerged, fighting the Turkish government for autonomy and/or independence (different Kurdish groups have different goals, however, many are seeking representation within Turkish society, rather than full independence). Arguably the most prominent Kurdish group in Turkey is the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a separatist group that is listed as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the European Union, and the United States. The PKK was formed in 1978 and has carried out kidnappings and bombings against the Turkish state. Many PKK members have fled to Iraq, causing Turkey to launch a cross-border operation to try to subdue the group. Since 2015, the Turkish government’s cross-border efforts have killed 129 civilians and injured approximately 180 more. 

In May 2022, Turkey began considering a military operation to create a ‘buffer zone’ along the Iraqi and Syrian borders to disrupt the PKK’s activities. Some political analysts suggest that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is using this proposed military intervention to gain more support before the country’s 2023 elections. Salim Cevik, a researcher at the German Institute for Security and International affairs told Deutsche Welle: “The first aim is to keep the PKK away from Turkey. The Turks want to create a ‘buffer zone’ along both the Iraqi and Syrian borders, defeat the PKK or at the least, disrupt their logistics. A Turkish operation in northern Syria, if it happens, will be exploited to get the largest possible support for President Erdogan in the lead-up to Turkey’s next general election [in June 2023]. By intervening in Syria, the Turkish President will not only rally the country around the flag but also produce tangible proof that he is trying to fix the refugee crisis affecting his country.” Erdogan said his motives for the buffer zone are to create a safe space for the many Syrian refugees who have fled into Turkey from the ongoing conflict in Syria. While the ‘buffer zone’ may create a safer space for refugees, it also allows Erdogan to clamp down further on his political rivals from the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party. 

Turkey’s efforts at subduing the Kurds not only spilt into Iraqi territory but into Syria as well, where Kurds also make up one of the largest ethnic minorities. Kurds also faced state repression in Syria but managed to take over several areas of land during the country’s war, often supported by the United States against Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s government forces. However, when the US withdrew its troops from the Turkey-Syria border in 2019, Turkey began a military incursion into Syrian Kurdish territory, again against PKK fighters. PKK fighters, along with other Arab militia groups, make up the Syrian Defence Forces. The Syrian Defence Forces are generally supported by the United States, as they fought together against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. 


While the Kurdish are a majority Muslim people, they often face discrimination from other Muslims for not being ‘true’ followers of Islam. This level of religious persecution from people of their own faith has created a heightened sense of openness to new ideas of faith. The large number of Kurdish refugees who have been resettled in countries or areas that are more open to the Gospel than Iraq, Iran, Syria, or Turkey presents the Church in hosting nations the opportunity to reach out to these people and share the Gospel with them. INcontext contacts in Lebanon recently shared many testimonies of Kurdish people fleeing Syria coming to faith in Jesus and then striving to make a real difference in the lives of those around them who are not yet believers. As one of the most ‘unreached’ people groups in the world, according to the Joshua Project, there is still much work to be done amongst the Kurdish people. 

The Joshua Project describes Kurdistan as one of the regions of the world with the least amount of Gospel progress. Just under 2% of Kurdish people are evangelical Christians. As most of the Kurdish population lives within the Middle East, they face much of the same threat of persecution as other Middle Eastern Christians do. Repressive governments, family pressure, and social ostracization for leaving Islam all make it very difficult for a Kurdish person to come to Christ. However, the Church can celebrate the victories that are happening now within the Kurdish community. Thousands of Kurdish refugees have also been resettled in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and the United States and ministries dedicated to reaching these people have sprung up and begun planting the seeds of the Gospel. A testimony shared by a ministry in the Middle East encourages the Church that the Lord is “opening the widest doors in the midst of deepest crisis” among the Kurdish people. 

Please join us in praying for the following:

  • For the Kurdish Church to continue to grow amidst difficult circumstances
  • Thank the Lord for the ministries and individuals who are dedicated to reaching the Kurdish people with the Gospel
  • For Kurdish believers who come to Christ outside their home territory to have the opportunity to go back and reach their own people