Kurdish Christians (Kurdish: Kurdên Xirîstî) are Kurds who follow Christianity. The word Xirîstî is derived from the Greek words χριστιανός (khristianos) and χριστιανή (khristiani). The Arabic word Mesîhî is also sometimes used. Kurdish Christians should not be confused with other historical Christian communities living in the area such as the Assyrians, Armenians or Georgians. The total number of Kurdish Christians today is uncertain but is probably in the tens of thousands. There are large numbers of Christians of different churches, such as Syrian Catholic, Syrian Orthodox, Assyrian Church of the East, Armenian Catholic, and Chaldean Catholic. Thousands of Christian families have fled violence and threats in other parts of Iraq and found refuge in the Kurdistan Region.
Most Kurds converted to Islam after the Arab conquest of the Sassanid Empire. However, there were Kurdish converts to Christianity even after the spread of Islam. In the ninth century, a Kurd named Nasr or Narseh converted to Christianity, and changed his name to Theophobos during the reign of Emperor Theophilus and was the emperor's intimate friend and commander for many years. During the same period, the Kurdish prince Ibn-ad-Dahhak, who possessed the fortress of al-Jafary, abandoned Islam for Orthodox Christianity. In return, the Byzantines had given him extensive lands and a fortress. He was eventually executed with his entire family during a summer raid by Thamal, the Arab governor of Tarsus, in 927. In the late 11th and the early 12th century AD, Kurdish Christian soldiers comprised 2.7% of the army of fortress city of Shayzar in present-day Syria.
A Christianized Kurdish family under the title of Zakarids ruled parts of northern Armenia in the 13th century AD and it tried to reinvigorate intellectual activities by founding new monasteries. The family was known as Mxargrdzeli in Georgian and their ancestors were of Mesopotamian Kurds of Babirakan tribe. The family was converted to Christianity by the Armenian kings of Tashir or Dzoroyget. After the fall of Tashirs, the family came to serve the Georgian kings. Two brothers of this family , Zakare and Ivane became prominent in the Georgian Army and were instrumental in Queen Thamar's victory in Ani in 1199. Queen appointed them as rulers of Ani in 1201. Later, Mongols gave Akhlat to princess Tamta daughter of Ivane in 1243 and confirmed Shanshe son of Zakare in Ani in 1245.
In the 19th century, several Christian villages existed in Kurdistan, whose inhabitants spoke only Kurdish, and there were Muslim Kurdish tribes that recalled they were once Christians. Kurds who converted to Christianity usually turned to the Nestorian Church. In 1884, researchers of the Royal Geographical Society reported about a Kurdish tribe in Sivas which retained certain Christian observances and sometimes identified as Christian. It is also possible that many Kurdish Christians have been linguistically and hence ethnically absorbed by Semitic-speaking Christians of Mesopotamia, especially after Islamic expansions in Middle East.
In the early 20th century, a Lutheran mission from United States and Germany began to serve the Kurds of Iran. From 1911 to 1916, it established a Kurdish congregation and an orphanage. One of the most prominent Kurdish leaders in Iraqi Kurdistan, Sheikh Ahmed Barzani who was a brother of Mustafa Barzani, announced his conversion to Christianity during his uprising against the Iraqi government in 1931.
Contemporary Kurdish Christians
In recent years many Kurds from Muslim background have converted to Christianity.[dead link] After the Gulf War in 1991, Christian agencies offered help to Kurdish refugees, who were amazed that the assistance came from Christians.[dead link]
The Kurdish-Speaking Church of Christ (The Kurdzman Church of Christ) was established in Hewlêr (Arbil) by the end of 2000, and has branches in the Silêmanî, Duhok governorates. This is the first evangelical Kurdish church in Iraq. Its logo is formed of a yellow sun and a cross rising up behind a mountain range. Kurdzman Church of Christ held its first three-day conference in Ainkawa north of Arbil in 2005 with the participation of 300 new Kurdish converts.
In Turkey, Christianity has attracted a number of converts both among Kurds and Turks in the past decade. In Iraqi Kurdistan, several evangelical groups have been formed. While in some cases they have faced intolerance by extremist Muslims, their activities are largely tolerated by the Regional Government of Kurdistan (KRG) out of a desire to remain democratic. Since 2001, Servant Group International has established three English-language Christian schools titled Classical School of the Medes in Iraqi Kurdistan. By 2005 three campuses in Sulaimaniya, Irbil and Dohuk with a total enrolment of 700 students, were operational. Kurdistan Regional Government has recently awarded legal status and an official permit to the Bible Society to open a branch in the region. Kurdish converts to Christianity began to discuss petitioning KRG for the right to change the religious status on their ID cards in 2007.[dead link]
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