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.
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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.