On a barren hillside outside Sulaymaniyah in southeast Iraqi Kurdistan sits a small compound of buildings clustered behind battered gray and ochre walls. Atop one wall is a large white sign glittering with gold and azure lettering that reads in English and Arabic: Classical School of the Medes. It is one of three new private schools in the region that teach a “Christian worldview,” the handiwork of American evangelicals from Tennessee.
Since the US occupation took hold, American evangelicals have established not only schools, but printing presses, radio stations, women's centers, bookstores, medical and dental clinics, and churches in northern Iraq, all with the blessings and assistance of the Kurdistan government. Many of these efforts were funded in part by US taxpayer dollars, channeled through Department of Defense construction contracts and State Department grants.
In September 2003, just four months after US forces took down Saddam Hussein's regime, 350 evangelical pastors and church leaders assembled in Kirkuk, where they were warmly welcomed by Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government. At that gathering, George Grant, a leader of Servant Group International, the evangelical organization in Nashville that set up the chain of Christian schools, 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!”
CENTCOM documents show that between 2005 and 2007, DOD's Joint Contracting Command Iraq/Afghanistan paid the Kurdish company Daban Group at least $465,639 for the construction of Grant's School of the Medes. Two years earlier, tens of thousands of dollars from a State Department-funded program called Healthcare Partnerships in Northern Iraq also made their way into a variety of Servant Group evangelical and humanitarian projects.
In return for the Regional Government's support for this evangelical presence in Kurdistan, Doug Layton, another Tennessean and a Servant Group founder, served as a crucial liaison for the KRG in Washington during the Bush years. There, he ran Kurdish public relations efforts and recruited evangelical businessmen to invest in the region.
“Since the run up to the Iraq War, [Massoud] Barzani and the KRG played to the Bush administration and its right-wing evangelical Christian base,” said Mike Amitay, a Middle East senior policy analyst at the Open Society Policy Center. “That's where they saw the power and the money. Barzani was going to let them set up schools and churches and get what he needed.” But, Amitay adds, “given the rise of the Islamic parties in Kurdistan and Assyrian Christian resentment of American evangelical exceptionalism and proselytizing, they're playing with fire.”
In the years since Saddam Hussein's 1988 assault on the Kurds that culminated in the chemical weapon attack on the village of Halabja, some 14,000 refugees from Kurdistan made their way to Nashville, now home to the largest Kurdish population in the United States. In 1992, a cadre of Nashville evangelicals from Servant Group International, including large numbers of Kurdish believers, trooped out of their base at Belmont Church, a megachurch occupying several blocks on Music Square, and made their way to the mountains of Kurdistan in northern Iraq, where they set up shop. They were packing Kurdish-language bibles, bags of cash, medical equipment and a long-range game plan to establish their “Father's Kingdom” between the Turkish border and Iran. Since arriving in northern Iraq some twenty years ago, Servant Group has widened its global presence, establishing offices, ministries and schools in Turkey, Central Asia, Indonesia, Germany, and Norway.
After seven years of American dominance in the region, they have burrowed deep inside the Kurdistan Regional Government, the ruling coalition of Barzani's Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). With help from Layton at the Kurdistan Development Corporation and aided by connections with Republican lobbyists and Congressmen in Washington, they have brokered international business concessions and oil drilling contracts and funneled USAID and DOD money into their missions, setting up their chain of Christian schools. In turn, the KRG has backed Servant Group's ministries and schools with grants of land, buildings and other favors.
Servant Group and its partners are distinguished by their military model of evangelism (what they call “spiritual warfare”); their covert action tactics such as “tent making” or “Kingdom Business” (they enter a country to establish seemingly secular businesses as a cover for evangelism); their intelligence gathering, which they call “spiritual mapping” (where teams of evangelicals conduct full-spectrum “field research'” that includes demographic, historical and geographic data from the neighborhood level to entire countries); an ingrained animosity to Islam; and their dominionist “Kingdom Now” worldview (a fusion of neo-Calvinist authoritarianism and “New Apostolic” Pentecostalism, a millenarian sect of the Assemblies of God whose best known adherent is Sarah Palin).
Servant Group missionaries shrewdly established themselves as valued assets to the KRG ruling families and the Bush/Cheney Iraq War effort. The group had close ties to the Bush administration: Stephen Mansfield, the author of The Faith of George W. Bush, a 2004 bestseller that portrayed Bush as “God's man” in the White House, served for five years, until 2002, as the pastor of the Belmont Church in Nashville that serves as Servant Group's home base. Prior to taking the pulpit, Mansfield traveled to northern Iraq with Servant Group to bring bibles and the Jesus film, a widely used evangelical proselytizing tool, to the Kurds. Together, Mansfield and Grant serve as advisers to a consortium of “openly Christian business executives” called American Destiny, who invest in development projects in Kurdistan.
In a 2002 interview in the Association of Classical and Christian Schools bulletin, Classical Schools teacher and trainer Mary Yacoubian said that she joined the Servant Group mission because “they weren't content with just setting up a church in every city. Their goal was to truly 'disciple' the nation — establish Christ's Kingdom in every area of society: government, arts, medicine, education, law, etc.” After calling Islam “a religion based on fear,” Yacoubian gushed, “We also get to witness believers being baptized in a little plastic pool in our garden! Just think about it. Men and women who have been steeped in Islam are turning to Christ!”
Yacoubian's statements reflect the dangerous heart of the evangelical exceptionalist conviction — their “Kingdom of God” excludes all possibilities but their particular American brand of Christian society, governance and capitalism.
Doing Well by Doing Good
Douglas Layton is central to these successes. In his January 2002 publication, The Forerunner, longtime Christian Reconstructionist Andrew Sandlin, a close colleague of George Grant, praised Layton for his ambitious incursions into Kurdistan. “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,” wrote Sandlin. “[C]onsider 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.”
Layton coauthored a book, Our Father's Kingdom: The Church and the Nation, in 2000, in which he explicitly lays out his mission: “If communists and Muslims can take nations — so can our God!”
That book's co-author, George Otis, Jr., is a true general in the Spiritual Warfare movement, a self-described army of evangelicals in a battle against “territorial demons” to establish “the Kingdom of Christ.” He heads a global evangelical intelligence agency, The Sentinel Group, that deploys “field cells” with laptops to gather demographic data in countries the movement has targeted for conversion — currently, Uganda, as well as several countries in Central America and the Middle East, including Iraq. The data is forwarded to Sentinel's computer banks as part of its “spiritual mapping” project.
Layton has pushed evangelism in the Middle East to its legal limits. According to German court documents, Layton was arrested in 1993 in the northern Iraqi town of Dohuk for publicly preaching that Kurdistan would have their “promised country, if the Kurds followed Jesus” and that “Islam would not bring them anything but war and misfortune.” His speech sparked angry street protests, and after his arrest, Layton was ordered out of the country. He apparently sought to make amends by personally lobbying in support of the KDP in Washington where he made speeches at the Council for National Policy and testified at Congressional hearings, championing US support for an independent Kurdistan, investment in the region and Barzani's KDP, in particular. By 1996 he was back in Kurdistan.
Up until late 2009, 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.” Before taking his job at the KDC, Layton held a post at the KRG Ministry of Health, where he wrote speeches for the minister and ran field operations for the USAID-backed Healthcare Partnerships in Northern Iraq.
In 2008 the KRG folded the KDC into a new entity, Kurdistan Investment. It is unclear what role — if any — Layton plays in this revamped bureau. (He is not listed on its board of directors.) Layton currently directs a project called The Other Iraq Tours, which arranges junkets for American businessmen and politicians into Kurdistan. His partners in the company are fellow Servant Group leader Bill Garaway and Jason Atkinson, a conservative Republican state senator from Oregon and occasional Tea Party speaker. The Other Iraq also has strong ties to the military in the United States and Kurdistan. The company is a subsidiary of Point 62 Consulting, headed by retired US Army Col. Harry Schute, who was chief of staff for the Coalition Provisional Authority in northern Iraq from 2003 to 2004 and now serves as a senior security adviser to the KRG.
According to its website, Point 62 “provide(s) security and political advice to several elements of the KRG, principally the Prime Minister's office and the Ministry of State for the Interior” and “security services to the oil and gas industry.”
Col. Schute, who appears to wear many hats, is also executive vice chairman of VSC Security, a joint venture with the KRG, headed by Keith E. Schuette, a well-connected Republican Party player and up until this year, a lobbyist with Haley Barbour's BGR Group; Schuette now serves as a senior advisor to the KRG.
In 2005, Bill Garaway joined Layton at the KDC to launch a promotional campaign, Kurdistan: The Other Iraq, a series of video, print, and Internet ads and emails featuring smiling Kurds waving American flags and thanking the United States for its invasion of Iraq. They also touted the ripe investment opportunities that awaited multinational corporations in northern Iraq. To script and produce the campaign, Garaway and Layton brought in Sal Russo, who heads Russo Marsh & Rogers, a Republican PR firm based in Sacramento. The contract would bring the firm “millions of dollars over the next few years” from the KRG, according to Russo. A year earlier, the firm had produced a pro-war media campaign echoing Bush administration claims that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and had “extensive ties” to Al Qaeda. The ads memorably attacked Democrats who opposed Bush's war as “willing to undermine support for the war on terrorism to selfishly advance their shameless political ambitions.”
Garaway also produced another, very different, propaganda video, A Journey To Iraq, financed by Servant Group and tailored specifically for American evangelicals. This one featured “faithful Christians answering God's call to help spread Christianity to the Arab and Kurdish people.”
The Money Trail
In June 2002, as the Bush administration began prepping for the US invasion of Iraq, Congress green-lighted $3.1 million for a State Department-funded program called Healthcare Partnerships in Northern Iraq, ostensibly an effort to improve healthcare in the Kurdish region, but primarily viewed by Middle East policy experts in the United States and local NGO observers as a way to bring the KDP and PUK together under a unified governing body. And who was hired as field operations director for this team-building USAID project? Douglas Layton.
Two-thirds of the Partnership money was swallowed up by Meridian International, a politically connected NGO whose board, at the time, included the wife of then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, and its subcontractors, according to an analysis by one of the program's participants. That left about $1 million for Layton to personally direct into Kurdish health programs. According to published reports by Servant Group and sources in northern Iraq who were involved with the program, Layton funneled much of it into Servant Group operations such as its mobile dental service, health clinics, and into the pockets of KRG officials with whom he was currying favor. Layton also used funds to rent an office in the KRG Ministry of Health for $1,000 a month-another kickback to KRG officialdom-where he wrote speeches for Health Minister Dr. Jamal Abdul Hamid Abbas. According to two NGO sources who were then in Kurdistan, Layton also handed out cash and equipment from Healthcare Partners to Abbas' cronies.
Beyond the self-dealing and influence peddling, Layton seems to have run a poor operation. Under his guidance, for example, the Partnership set up Internet connections at local clinics and medical schools, then required the organizations to pay $1,000 a month to continue the service — money, of course, they did not have.
A field director for an international NGO involved in health programs in Kurdistan from 2002 to 2004 was not much impressed with Layton or with the Partnership. “HCP was full of shit,” said the field director, who, due to his ongoing work in the politically volatile region, asked not to be named. “Our NGO conducted a series of nursing trainings in all three major hospitals, and we heard of no activity in this area by the HCP.
”You look at the HCP final report and one thing that jumps out is the fuzzy math. They say they gave twenty-six grants averaging about $13,000. That comes out to about $338,000, not nearly the $1 million they say went into the grants programs. As far as reports on grant activities go, this is one of the shoddiest pieces of garbage I have ever seen.“
Mike Amitay is a well-regarded expert on Kurdistan who worked with a number of NGO relief programs in the region during the 1990s. He now serves as senior policy analyst on the Middle East at The Open Society Institute in Washington, D.C. In an email interview, Amitay wrote, ”I find it troubling that, given Douglas Layton's background and his activities on behalf of extreme Christian evangelists, he would be selected to administer significant US government aid programs in Iraqi Kurdistan.“
”I am disconcerted that despite the ineffectiveness of programs previously implemented under Layton's direction, and knowing of his evangelical activism, Kurdish authorities continued to facilitate his prominent role in the Kurdistan Development Corporation,“ he continued. ”Despite the threat to Kurdish society posed by Layton's less-than-hidden agenda.“
The School of the Medes
The principal of the Sulaymaniyah Classical School is Kawa Omer Qadir, a friendly forty-something man with a graying buzz cut and a massive Arabic-language Bible resting in front of him, who welcomed this reporter into his pink office. He says the Classical School of the Medes runs three schools in the region: his in Sulaymaniyah, plus schools in Erbil and Dohuk, each serving grades kindergarten through ten. All classes are in English, he explains, and the programs are funded by the government, through the Ministry of the Education, and by ”churches outside Kurdistan.“ His 800 students come from upper- and middle-class families, many of them the children of KRG officials. Most are Muslim, making them ripe targets for Servant Group missionaries. ”You can count the Christians on the fingers of one hand,“ he says.
The schools are part of Classical Development Services International, whose governing board is based in Nashville. The school's pastor, Yousif Matty, sits on that board, along with George Grant and Bill Garaway.
The school enjoys central heating and air conditioning and its own generator, a luxury that spares teachers and students the routine power outages that plague the city and most of the region. The classrooms are painted pink, like Qadir's office. In one, eighteen eighth graders were getting a math lecture from a Kurdish teacher from Sulaymaniyah University.
”Most teachers are from Kurdistan,“ Qadir says. ”But the staff from Classical Development Service Schools International provides us with international teachers who train our teachers and organize the curriculum and program.“ One young American teacher encountered at the school, who refused to share her name, says she is a member of Classical Development Schools International but doesn't receive a salary. She was here ”trying to help,“ she says, because she believes that ”the US has a responsibility toward this country.“
”The government helps us through many ways,“ Qadir says. ”They gave us this building. They provide security. But we pay their salaries.“ That money comes out of donations from American evangelicals through the Belmont Church and other missionary organizations. Between 2002 and 2006, Servant Group pumped $2 million into its Kurdish evangelical operations with the help of Partners International, an evangelical outfit based in Spokane, Washington. Global Hope, another particularly aggressive evangelical organization from Tennessee, is building a $2 million high-tech facility, complete with an Internet cafe called Freedom Center Iraq. The project is headed by Heather Mercer, best known for getting herself arrested by the Taliban in August 2001 when she and another missionary were caught handing out bibles and showing the Jesus film.
Qadir doesn't go into specifics about his school's curriculum and teaching philosophy, but George Grant is far less reticent. A Christian Reconstructionist for decades, Grant guides the Classical Schools from his office half a world away at King's Meadow Study Center, twenty miles south of Nashville. On Franklin Classical School's website, Grant lays out exactly what he means by classical Christian education. ”Our foundational worldview is the unchangeable Word of God-the Bible.... We strive to practice biblical living and teaching everywhere, not only in our curriculum, but also in our administration and our staff.... The students consequently live in a Christian culture dominated by the authority of the Word of God.“
Michael Gunter, a political science professor at Tennessee Tech University, has authored twelve books on Kurdistan; his latest, The Kurds Ascending, deals with the region in the post-Saddam era. Gunter called these American evangelical efforts in Kurdistan ”alarming.“
”The Kurds are Muslims, they don't identify as Christian,“ Gunter says. ”While they are tolerant of Christians, even the nominal Muslims don't care for evangelism, especially this aggressive brand. I find it strange that the KRG is allowing this.“
But Bill Garaway has a different take on the Kurds' religious views. In a podcast interview last July, he brushed aside any evangelical problems inside Kurdistan by saying, ”Most Kurds don't even like Muslims.“
Grant is the author of The Blood of the Moon, a book first published in 1991 and reprinted in 2001. In his book, Grant calls for conquering the Islamic world by military might in order to bring about Muslim conversion, an obvious prerequisite for achieving his uncompromising theocratic worldview. In his 1987 Dominionist polemic, The Changing of the Guard, Grant wrote: ”Christian politics has as its primary intent the conquest of the land — of men, families, institutions, bureaucracies, courts, and governments for the Kingdom of Christ. It is to reinstitute the authority of God's Word as supreme over all judgments, over all legislation, over all declarations, constitutions, and confederations.“
In an April 2004 lecture at fellow Dominionist R.C. Sproul's Highlands Study Center in Virginia, Grant said, ”We're to make disciples who will obey everything that He commanded, not just in the hazy zone of piety, but in the totality of life.... It is the spiritual, emotional, and cultural mandate to win all things in the name of Jesus.“
Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks racist and far-right social movements, is well acquainted with Grant and his schools, which, he argues, ”are deeply influenced by white supremacist ideas.“ He points, in particular, to Grant's close association with Douglas Wilson, who founded both the Association of Classical and Christian Schools (of which Grant is a longstanding member) and New Saint Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho, which provides teachers to the Classical Schools in Kurdistan.
Wilson also coauthored a disturbing book, Southern Slavery: As It Was, a neo-Confederate fantasy disguised as history. The book argues that Southern slavery was sanctioned by the Bible and that slaves enjoyed a wonderful life due to the patriarchal benevolence of their evangelical masters. ”Slavery produced in the South a genuine affection between the races that we believe we can say has never existed in any nation before the [Civil] War or since,“ it reads. ”There has never been a multi-racial society which has existed with such mutual intimacy and harmony in the history of the world.“ According to Potok, Grant and Wilson are in the leadership of a movement within Christian Reconstructionism called ”Celtic Sunrise“ that is deeply influenced by white supremacist ideas.
Though I spent months in pursuit of interviews for this story, the evangelical leadership in northern Iraq remained resolutely, uniformly unresponsive. Yousif Matty, the Servant Group pastor in Erbil, begged off repeatedly, first citing health reasons and then saying he would talk, but not for publication. Pastors at two new evangelical churches in the region, the Kurdzman Church and the Free Evangelical Church, were more blunt: ”We don't talk to the media.“
Layton also declined to be interviewed in person for this article and requested that all questions be emailed to him. Seventeen questions covering his role as an evangelical, his performance in the USAID program, how he landed his job at the KDC, and his relationships with several specific individuals were sent; Layton refused to answer any of them.
”Your questions are so full of falsehoods and misrepresentations that I do not think it would be productive to comment further,“ he wrote in an email. ”My activities in Kurdistan have been to help the Kurds to develop a thriving economy and a democratic society.“
When asked about his longstanding relationships with Servant Group leaders George Grant, Stephen Mansfield, Bill Garaway, Yousif Matty and the coauthor of his book, George Otis, Jr., Layton's strange response was, ”I have never heard of most of the incidents or people you describe and only know slightly most of the other people you mention, and there is simply no truth I have involvement in the issues you raise.“
Because such a blanket denial flies in the face of the facts, it casts a cloud on Layton's true agenda and that of his fellow evangelicals in the region. ”Everyone knows it's a game. The Kurds just want to cash in,“ says Amitay. ”The KRG isn't concerned about what evangelicals say over here. English reports in the US aren't going to be read over there.“ He then points out that the KRG ”will draw the line“ if the evangelicals pursue aggressive conversion efforts. ”A priority for the KRG is a decent relationship with Tehran,“ he says. ”And there is a rising pro-Islamic movement responding to the economic disparities between wealthy Kurds and the majority of working poor. There is resentment out there that the Islamists can tap into.“
All they'd have to do is read Layton's comments in a 2003 interview with the evangelical magazine World, a champion of the Christian push into Kurdistan, in which Layton confirmed Amitay's worries with an inflammatory observation regarding the political dynamics in a post-Saddam Iraq. ”Americans made a mistake because of their misunderstanding of Islam,“ Layton wrote. ”Shia and Sunni will never like us. They will always hate us and our view of government. They don't recognize inalienable rights.“
The presence of someone like Layton inside the Kurdistan government, brokering foreign investment in the region and setting up Christian schools with the goal of proselytizing to Muslims strikes Michael Gunter, the Kurdistan expert at Tennessee Tech, as a dangerous proposition given the current volatile political climate in Iraq. ”The stability of Kurdistan is very fragile right now,“ he said, citing the fractious state of affairs in northern Iraq between Kurds, Assyrian Christians, Yazidis, Turkomen and Sunni Muslims that has produced a wave of bombings and assassinations over the past several months. The national elections in March have left Iraq fragmented along political, tribal and religious lines-and have left unanswered the pressing question of who will control the oil-rich regions of Tamim, which includes Kirkuk, and parts of the Nineveh plain.
US military commanders have said that tensions between Kurds and Arabs are the greatest threat to Iraq's security as American troop withdrawal accelerates. A cadre of US Kingdom Now evangelicals in the mix — especially with ties at the upper levels of the KRG — can only provide more fuel to an increasingly flammable situation.
Rebaz Mahmoud contributed reporting from Kurdistan. This article was reported in collaboration with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, now known as Type Investigations.