What in the Name of the Crusades are Tennessee Evangelicals Doing in Kurdish Iraq?

While working on Bad Faith—a yet-to-be-completed book focusing on the financial forces behind the Religious Right—Mike Reynolds* got wind of the Nashville, Tennessee-based America 21, a non-profit political action committee that hopes to bring America to God by encouraging ”moral leadership from our churches” to be heard ”in the halls of Congress and across this nation.”

According to Reynolds, an investigative reporter whose work on the religious right has been featured in Rolling Stone, US News & World Report, and 60 Minutes, “the group caught my eye because it was involved with holding support rallies for Judge Roy Moore, who, as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court defied a federal order to remove his 5,300-pound monument of the Ten Commandments from inside the state’s judicial building.” The statue was later removed from the building and Moore was removed from the bench.

“Later,” said Reynolds, “I discovered that America 21 was involved with former Texas Congressman Tom Delay and the Republican Party’s uber-lobbyist Jack Abramoff.”

According to Reynolds, America 21 “was run by an old anti-abortion ambulance-chasing lawyer and lobbyist named J Thomas Smith… [who] was working on behalf of some Christian evangelicals that were looking to set up shop in Kurdistan.” Those discoveries led him to Douglas and Marilyn Layton and Servant Group International, a project run out of the Belmont Church in Nashville.

While Franklin Graham was preparing to provide relief to beleaguered Iraqis (and to find Christian converts), Servant Group International had already been in Iraq for more than ten years. Again, Reynolds:

In September 2003, four months after US forces defeated Saddam Hussein, 350 evangelical pastors and church leaders assembled in Kirkuk, welcomed by Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani. During the gathering, George Grant, the American director of the Classical School of The Medes, declared that ‘Jesus Christ is Lord over all things; He is Lord over every Mullah, every Ayatollah, every Imam, and every Mahdi pretender; He is Lord over the whole of the earth even Iraq!’

In a recent interview, Reynolds discussed the curiously strong presence that Christian evangelicals have established in Northern Iraq.

How did Christian evangelicals get so deeply involved with the Kurds?

You might say that it started after Saddam Hussein’s 1988 assault on the Kurds, which culminated in the chemical weapon attack that killed thousands in the village of Halabja. Some 14,000 refugees from Kurdistan made their way to Nashville, Tennessee, now home to the largest Kurdish population in the nation. Four years later, a group of Nashville evangelical Dominionists known as Servant Group International, departed from the Belmont Church—a megachurch occupying several blocks on Music Square—making their way to the mountains of northern Iraq where they set up shop.

Why is Kurdistan important to Christian evangelicals?

For evangelicals, Northern Iraq is prime real estate in what they call the “10/40 Window,” which is a geographical delineation at 10 and 40 degrees North latitude that opens across North Africa, through the Middle East, India and closes in Indonesia. The concept originated in 1991 with Argentine evangelist Luis Bush, and was expanded upon by his fellow New Apostolics C. Peter Wagner and George Otis, Jr. These zealous dominionists called it the “primary spiritual battleground in the world today…the Church’s final evangelistic frontier.”

When the “spiritual warriors” of Servant Group International headed out of Nashville for Kurdistan it was under this banner. With the compliance of the Barzani-led KRG and a sympathetic Bush Administration, these US evangelicals have established a solid base of operations in the Middle East for their aggressive and potentially inflammable brand of proselytizing. With tensions ratcheting up between the Kurds and Iraqi Sunnis over who will control the oil-rich regions of Kirkuk and the Nineveh plain, having these American end-time evangelicals trying to convert Muslims in Kurdistan with the blessings of the KRG is, as a longtime Kurdistan expert told me, “like striking matches in a room full of gasoline.”

What was Servant Group International up to?

The folks from Belmont Church had a very big agenda. They brought with them Kurdish-language bibles, medical equipment, lots of money, and a long-range plan to establish their “Father’s Kingdom” between the Turkish border and Iran. Since the time of its arrival in Northern Iraq, Servant Group International has widened its presence, establishing bases in Turkey, Liberia, Indonesia, Germany and Norway.

Can you describe how Servant Group International operates?

What is especially distinctive about SGI—and its partners—is its development of a military model of evangelism (‘spiritual warfare’), which includes covert action tactics (‘tentmaking’), intelligence gathering (‘spiritual mapping’). They have an ingrained animosity to Islam, and their Dominionist ‘Kingdom Now’ worldview, is a fusion of neo-Calvinist authoritarianism and ‘New Apostolic’ Pentecostalism, a cult-like millenarian sect of the Assemblies of God led by self-anointed ‘apostles’ and ‘prophets.’ Interestingly enough, its best known adherent is Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

The movement, marked by its obsession with demons and world conquest, grew under the guidance of C. Peter Wagner, head of an outfit called Global Harvest Ministries. In the November 2005 Global Harvest newsletter, Wagner wrote that ‘God has already raised up for us a key apostle in one of the strategic nations of the Middle East, and other apostles are already coming on board. Once we have the apostles in place, we will then bring the intercessors and the prophets into the inner circle, and we will end up with the spiritual core we need to move ahead for retaking the dominion that is rightfully ours.’ Despite such theocratic baggage, SGI shrewdly established themselves as valued assets to the KRG ruling families and the Bush/Cheney Iraq war effort.

In her groundbreaking 1989 book Spiritual Warfare: The Politics of the Christian Right, Sara Diamond defines the term as “A form of intense prayer – often accompanied by ‘charismatic’ practices such as speaking in tongues – intended to change either a material or supernatural situation.” Can you explain the role that ‘spiritual Warfare,’ plays with SGI?

In their 2000 book, Our Father’s Kingdom: The Church and The Nation, Douglas Layton, and co-author George Otis, Jr. declared that ‘if communists and Muslims can take nations—so can our God!’ And by ‘taking nations,’ Layton means that ‘Christ’s kingdom must rule over government and law, the arts and sports, education, business, economics, science and technology, the media, and the family.’

Otis, one of the generals in the Spiritual Warfare movement, heads The Sentinel Group, formerly known as Issachar Frontier Missions Strategies. Sentinel is essentially a global evangelical intelligence agency that deploys “field cells” with laptops who gather demographics in cities and rural areas in targeted countries. The data is then forwarded to computer banks at the Sentinel Group as part of its “spiritual mapping” project. It is currently operational in Central America, Uganda and the Middle East. Otis’s history in Middle East dates back more than two decades to when his father George Otis, Sr., a close friend of Ronald Reagan and former Lear Jet executive, set up the High Adventure radio ministry in Lebanon in 1980. Otis put the station in the hands of Christian Falangists during the Israeli occupation. The US State Department tried to shut him down without success.

Otis then launched Middle East Television, an evangelical broadcaster also in Lebanon. Otis later “gifted” MET to Pat Robertson who absorbed the station into his global Christian Broadcasting Network. At a New Orleans conference of evangelicals in 1987 one of George Jr’s Issachar associates told Sara Diamond that their group intended to make themselves more attractive to recruiters from CIA and State by working as ‘bi-vocational’ professional missionaries–like teachers, businessmen, consultants, engineers, diplomats and military personnel.

Douglas Layton is clearly an important figure in all this. Talk more about him.

Douglas Layton, the founding director of Servant Group International, is a veteran evangelical missionary to the Middle East. More than seven years ago, in a publication called The Forerunner, longtime Christian Reconstructionist Andrew Sandlin wrote of Layton and SGI’s evangelical push into northern Iraq: ‘If we are going to support missionaries, let’s support missionaries who are going around the world to recapture cultures, not simply win a few souls here and there,’ Sandlin wrote. ‘For example, consider Doug Layton in Kurdistan, northern Iraq, who is re-building a Christian culture: new Christian schools, new Christian businesses, and more. He is not content to build churches; he wants an entire Christian culture.’

Up until this year Layton served as the Erbil director of the Kurdistan Development Corporation, a KRG sponsored venture launched in 2004 to promote, facilitate and establish business and investment opportunities in the Kurdistan Region in Iraq. Layton transitioned from his post at the KRG Ministry of Health where he wrote speeches for the minister and directed the USAID-backed boondoggle, Health Care Partnerships in Northern Iraq.

The last I heard, Layton was operating a private venture called The Other Iraq Tours that arranges junkets for American businessmen and politicians into Kurdistan.

What is SGI up to now, five-plus years after the U.S. invasion?

These days, SGI is closely involved with the Kurdistan Regional Government, the ruling coalition of Massoud Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), and Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), brokering international business concessions and oil drilling contracts, funneling USAID money into their missions, setting up a chain of ‘classical Christian’ schools and producing slick PR videos for the Kurdistan Regional Government that were broadcast in the US. It appears as if the KRG has given them the run of the country, often backing their ministries and schools with grants of land, buildings and other favors.

*****

* Disclosure: Earlier this year, Reynolds and I worked together on a project investigating the right wing money behind the attacks on Barack Obama. Our work resulted in the publication of “The Palin Payoff: How Sarah Brings in the Christian Cash.”

This article was first published on Religion Dispatches.

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His column, "Conservative Watch," documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right. Read other articles by Bill, or visit Bill's website.

13 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Michael Kenny said on February 21st, 2009 at 1:40pm #

    The disaster, of course, of groups like these is that they cause Iraqi Christians to be stigmatised by their fellow countrymen as collaborators, bringing down persecution on their heads. A Catholic bishop and at least one priest, for example, has been murdered. Of course, these people tend to put popes and cardinals in the same boat as mullahs and imams!

  2. bozh said on February 21st, 2009 at 2:29pm #

    david mcdowell, in his, a modern history, THE KURDS, all kurds wanted prior to baathist rise to power was to be able to use own langauge and have greater share in economy.

    but due to kurdish feudal society, kurds were divided as aghas feared any change. aghas oft owned villages and until ?1967 a peasant cld not leave the village w.o. owner’s permission.

    kurds begun to ask for an autonomy or decentralization when baathists came to power in ’63. baathist have offered kurds an autonomy but later the agreement failed.
    among the baathists who werw willing to grant kurds an autonomy was also saddam hussein.

    so, if kurds obtain independence or a (con)federated state, arabs wld have contributed to that. thnx

  3. Barry said on February 21st, 2009 at 2:57pm #

    Maybe the Christian presence in Iraqi Kurdistan has to be seen in the light of the Israeli presence there as well – the two together cooperating on a message and policy of Israel as rightfully belonging only to the Jews.

  4. rg the lg said on February 21st, 2009 at 5:20pm #

    Barry suggests that the problem with the Kurdish failure for autonomy is Iraq and by extension, Arabs. OK … but my question has to do with why Kurdistan was split amongst Iran, Iraq and Turkey in the first place …

    This was an act that was engineered and policed by western ‘powers’ (read non-Arab) … the US and Britain in particular?

    But, I suppose the argument that the native-American had to be pushed aside was also the Indians fault?

    Oh well, racism in such discussions is endemic.

    RG the LG

  5. Shabnam said on February 21st, 2009 at 6:11pm #

    The question before “Why Kurdistan was split between ….” you must ask yourself where Kurdistan was located. Kurdistan was in Persia (Iran) and it was not either in Iraq or Turkey. Part of Northwest Part of Iran dominated by the Kurds and Turkmen was lost during Chaldiran battle in 1514 to a better military equipped Ottoman empire. Today, this part is located in north part of Iraq and east of Turkey. Therefore, Kurdistan was part of Iran where part of it was lost as Ottoman Empire try to expand its empire further. Iran was a Sunni country turned into a Shia under Savavids to face Ottoman threat.
    Starting in 1514, for over a century the Ottoman Empire and Savafid Persia were engaged in almost constant warfare over control of the Caucasus and Mesopotamia. The two states were the greatest powers of the Middle East, and the rivalry was further fueled by dogmatic differences: the Ottomans were Sunnis, while the Safavids were staunchly Shia Muslims of the Qizilbash sect, and seen as heretics by the Ottomans.[1]
    The outcome at Chaldiran had many consequences. Perhaps most significantly, it established the border between the two empires, which remains the border between Turkey and Iran today.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Chaldiran

  6. Shabnam said on February 21st, 2009 at 6:15pm #

    The question before “Why Kurdistan was split between ….” you must ask yourself where Kurdistan was located. Kurdistan was in Persia (Iran) and it was not either in Iraq or Turkey. Part of Northwest Part of Iran dominated by the Kurds and Turkmen was lost during Chaldiran battle in 1514 to a better military equipped Ottoman empire. Today, this part is located in north part of Iraq and east of Turkey. Therefore, Kurdistan was part of Iran where Northeast of it was lost as Ottoman Empire try to expand its power and influence.
    Starting in 1514, for over a century the Ottoman Empire and Savafid Persia were engaged in almost constant warfare over control of the Caucasus and Mesopotamia. The two states were the greatest powers of the Middle East, and the rivalry was further fueled by dogmatic differences: the Ottomans were Sunnis, while the Safavids were Shia Muslims.
    The outcome at Chaldiran had many consequences. Perhaps most significantly, it established the border between the two empires, which remains the border between Turkey and Iran today.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Chaldiran

  7. AaronG said on February 22nd, 2009 at 5:21am #

    “10/40 Window”??!! Huh? WTF??!!

    The only time any of this religious mumbo-jumbo has even got close to making sense to me was when I was up late nights patting my baby girl back to sleep on the couch. Sleep deprived with blood-shot eyes, their sermons at 3am nearly made sense to me. But then I switched channels and started believing the infomercials as well and wanted to buy some steak knives with my credit card. Then I knew I must get some sleep.

    It’s good to see that these religious killers are taking their leader’s (I think it’s still Jesus, isn’t it?) advice to “put away the sword” and “not get involved in politics”. Keep up the good work, religious nutters. See you on the couch next time I have a baby – I may even donate some money to you if I’m feeling gullible enough!

  8. Tennessee-Chavizta said on February 22nd, 2009 at 9:53am #

    I live in TN, and most TN slaves are not even right-wingers nor left-wingers. All the TN slaves care about is eating and snacking on: oreos, fig-bars, doritos, tostitos, corn-dogs, pancakes, duncan hines, pillsbury cakes, kraft cheese, Nabisco Ritz cookies, combos, oreos, pancakes, combos, corn dogs, burritos, tostitos, fajitas calzonis, Digiorno pizzas, Golden Corral, I-hop all u can eat buffets, potatoe salads, twinkies, little debbies, donkin donuts, pop tarts, struddles, apple jax, pecan pies, ice-cream, Hardees supersize burgers, Quiznos, Little Caesars, etc.

  9. Barry said on February 22nd, 2009 at 12:49pm #

    Tenn – Chavizta – You mentioned tostitos twice. Must be a favorite.

  10. Shabnam said on February 22nd, 2009 at 8:18pm #

    {With tensions ratcheting up between the Kurds and Iraqi Sunnis over who will control the oil-rich regions of Kirkuk and the Nineveh plain, having these American end-time evangelicals trying to convert Muslims in Kurdistan with the blessings of the KRG..}

    Your analysis does not reveal the main reason behind what is happening in the North of Iraq. Your explanation does not include the main factor and that is Israel and her plan of “the Greater Israel.” Any analysis which does not include this crucial fact, it is not going to be taken seriously.

    The main issue in North of Iraq is the colonization of Kurdistan by Israel which has made majority of people in the region to say loudly “we do not accept another Israel.” There is little doubt that Israel is working very hard towards ‘Palestinazation’ of North of Iraq since Kurdistan is included in her plan “the Greater Israel.”
    Iraq war was a zionist war to change the map of the region to benefit Israel using American resources to facilitate Israel’s plan of “the Greater Israel” and to become energy independent by having access to oil of North of Iraq.
    Since the invasion of Iraq many Jews from Israel have bought land in North of Iraq, like in early 20th century in Palestine.
    Israel has plans to relocate thousands of Jews from Israel to the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Nineveh under the guise of religious pilgrimages to ancient Jewish religious shrines. They are secretly working with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to carry out the integration of Kurdish and other Jews into areas of Iraq under control of the KRG.

    According to Wayne Madsen:
    {The Israelis are particularly interested in the shrine of the Jewish prophet Nahum in al Qush, the prophet Jonah in Mosul, and the tomb of the prophet Daniel in Kirkuk. Israelis are also trying to claim Jewish “properties” outside of the Kurdish region, including the shrine of Ezekiel in the village of al-Kifl in Babel Province near Najaf and the tomb of Ezra in al-Uzayr in Misan Province, near Basra, both in southern Iraq’s Shi’a-dominated territory. Israeli expansionists consider these shrines and tombs as much a part of “Greater Israel” as Jerusalem and the West Bank, which they call “Judea and Samaria.}

    Mossad is working with Israeli companies and “tourists” to claim the ‘Jewish” properties” to extend the occupied land in Palestine further towards the oil rich of North of Iraq. These Christian evangelicals, you are writing about, are cooperating with Mossad towards this coal. The reason behind activities of Christian evangelical is to help Zionists take over North of Iraq to include it in the map of “the greater Israel” which goes, according to another MYTH in Bible, from the Nile to Euphrates.
    Both Talebani and Barezani are cooperating with Israel and the Christian evangelicals to make, in their stupid mind, Kurdistan as an independent state. The partition of Iraq, in fact, was designed by a zionist Jew, Lesli Gelb, and was brought to the senate by a self claimed zioinst puppet, Joe Biden, to partition Iraq to make a non-Arab ally for Israel in the region. They have the same plan for Iran to balkanize the country through illegal economic sanctions to bring down the economy to increase unemployment and civil disobedience to create tension among Iranian minority groups and support opportunists among them to give those military training and financial support to bring ‘regime change.’ They have done the same thing in the Southern Sudan to make the south independent from the central government.
    The Israelis and their Christian Zionist supporters are working closely with the KRG towards this goal. Mossad operatives and Christian Zionist mercenaries are staging terrorist attacks against Chaldean Christians, particularly in Nineveh, Irbil, al-Hamdaniya, Bartalah, Talasqaf, Batnayah, Bashiqah, Elkosheven, Uqrah, and Mosul. Mossad gives Kurds military training and train them for terrorist activities in the neighboring country.
    These attacks by the Israelis and their allies are usually reported as being the responsibility of “Al Qaeda” and other Islamic “jihadists.” The ultimate aim of the Israelis is to depopulate the Christian population in and around Mosul and steal the land as BIBLICAL JEWISH LAND, as they have done in Palestine that is part of “the Greater Israel.”

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=96103301

    Today, the Kurds are the pawn of the Zionists in the region. Majority of people in the region call North of Iraq as, ‘another Israel’ which means ‘another enemy.’ American people must raise their voices against the zionist plan and exert pressure on Obama, the Jewish president, NOT TO CREATE ANOTHER ISRAEL. Shame on them.

    “the greater Israel” is based on another MYTH:

    Question: “What is the land that GOD promised to Israel?”

    Answer: In regards to the land that God has promised Israel, Genesis 15:18 declares, “To your descendants [Abraham’s] I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates.” God later confirms this promise to Abraham’s son Isaac, and Isaac’s son Jacob (whose name was later changed to Israel). When the Israelites were about to invade the Promised Land, God reiterated the land promise, as recorded in Joshua 1:4, “Your territory will extend from the desert to Lebanon, and from the great river, the Euphrates — all the Hittite country — to the Great Sea on the west.”

  11. Barry said on February 23rd, 2009 at 7:04pm #

    The point I was trying to make earlier – and failed to make it coherently – is that Israel is in Kurdistan to help forge a Kurdish government that is in alignment with Israeli geopolitics. Israel makes it a point to ally itself with regional non-Arab states (even though they be Muslim). This is the reason Israel has reached out to Turkey – and before the Islamic Revolution – got its oil from the Shah’s Iran. And it is why it supports non-Arab Sudanese against Khartoum, and why it is increasingly in bed with India.

    I don’t think Israel wants to extend its borders to Kurdistan – despite the Biblical passages – Israel is run by hardcore realists (realists of a sort) who realize that they have their hands full occupying adjacent lands and peoples without going deeper into the region. Israel would certainly like Kurdistan to be in their sphere of influence (uh, domination, actually) as a bulwark against the Arab peoples.

  12. Barbara said on February 24th, 2009 at 7:04am #

    Its always nice for jews like berkowitz and diamond to critique Christians. If only Christians were as free to critique asshole anti Christian propagandists like them then we would have what is commonly referred to as a level playing field.

    Instead we have what is commonly referred to as censorship which like the devil never comes in a form as ugly as the substance of their beings but comes in a beautiful form like political correctness.

    If the MExican bitch with the hispanic name doesn’t like Tennessee she is most free to return to her superior home in Mexico and she shouldn’t let the door hit her in her big fat hispanic ass on the way out.

    Yes indeed, Bill Berkowitz has a column called Conservative Watch. Here is a little fact you may not know. Years ago the old hymie bigot’s column was openly and provocatively called CHRISTIAN WATCH. In that column he labled Christians the “enemies of America”. Yes he has the nerve to say such a thing being another arrogant jew who thinks jews are the center of the universe.

    I complained and asked him how it would go over if someone named billy bob had a column called Jew Watch and called Jews the enemies of America – which of course they are – then he changed his column to Conservative watch but we can’t help but be aware that it is still a propaganda hate column against Christians.

    No such hate would be allowed here if it were against Jews and all of the people who’ve posted here would be called “anti semites” whatever that is, if they joined in such a discussion but of course they are free to call Christians and southern people whatever they please. The unbearable thing about that is that you cloak yourselves in superior morality. I guess its moral to engage in the destruction of the Anglo Saxon Protestant people so you can steal everything we own. Assholes.

    Now censor this since that is what propagandists and others undeserving of everything we have created are all about. Thats the only way you can win. Create an unlevel playing field. YOu need all the advantage you can get.

  13. Bill Berkowitz said on March 11th, 2009 at 9:58am #

    Without getting too deep into Barbara’s slime, one correction needs to be made. I have never written a column called “Christian Watch.” For several years, I was the editor of a DataCenter-based publication called “CultureWatch,” and I have authored pieces for a column format that is called “Conservative Watch.” In addition, contrary to Barbara’s charges — which I believe she has leveled before & I refuted — I have never called Christians “enemies of America.”