WASHINGTON -- Retired Iraqi Gen. Georges Sada, a former fighter pilot-turned-Christian evangelist, says Kurds are converting to Christianity "by the hundreds" in northern Iraq.
Gen. Sada earlier reported that he had been told that Iraqi pilots, flying private planes, took weapons of mass destruction to undisclosed locations in Syria in 2002.
The "good news" from Iraq's turbulent religious scene, consisting mainly of Sunni and Shi'ite Muslim militias battling each other, is from the Kurds, he said. Kurds are creating a constitution that does away with Shariah, or Islamic law, a move counter to trends in other Muslim countries such as Afghanistan and Iran, where leaving Islam is a capital offense and Christian converts are often killed.
"No Christians in the Kurdish territory are persecuted," he said yesterday in an interview.
Gen. Sada, 66, who lives in Baghdad, cited growing numbers of evangelical Christians in the Kurdish city of Irbil and a recent church conference of 854 Christians at the city's Salahaddin University as demonstrations of the Kurds' willingness to protect religious freedom.
He added that Nechervan Idris Barzani, prime minister of the Kurdish regional government in Irbil and nephew of former Iraqi Governing Council President Massoud Barzani, was extremely positive about evangelical Christians' efforts among Iraq's 4 million Kurds.
"He told me he'd rather see a Muslim become a Christian rather than a radical Muslim," the general said.
He spoke last night at McLean Bible Church, Northern Virginia's largest congregation, about his new vocation as director of the Iraqi Institute for Peace and president of the National Presbyterian Church in Baghdad.
"My foundation for peace is Christianity," said Gen. Sada, who was born an Assyrian Christian. "We must learn to love. Muslims will say they've got love and forgiveness, but I want to emphasize what Jesus Christ has said."
Gen. Sada has his work cut out for him. Outside the Kurdish areas, "Christians are in a very tough situation," he said. "Their children are kidnapped, and their money is taken by terrorists."
A fighter pilot like his father, Hormis Sada, Gen. Sada rose quickly in the Iraqi military in the 1960s and 1970s and was made a general in 1980. During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, he was responsible for interrogating U.S. and allied pilots shot down over Iraq.
The foreword to his recent book, "Saddam's Secrets," is written by retired Air Force Col. David Eberly, whose plane was shot down Jan. 19, 1991. Col. Eberly evaded capture for three days before he was found and taken to Baghdad.
"Suddenly I found myself in the presence of a man who, despite the power he had over me, still seemed to respect my human dignity," Col. Eberly wrote of Gen. Sada.
When Saddam Hussein's younger son, Qusay, demanded that the 24 pilots in Gen. Sada's custody be killed, the general refused. He was imprisoned for a week, released, then discharged from the military on Feb. 5, 1991. But he kept his extensive military contacts, who told him of Saddam using private planes to fly weapons of mass destruction to Syria in 2002.
But it was not until April 2004, when Jordanian intelligence reported foiling an al Qaeda plot to unleash 17.5 tons of explosives, including sarin nerve gas, in downtown Amman, that he decided to go public with what he knew.
"I thought, 'Wait a minute,' " he recalls. "The weapons must have fallen into the hands of terrorists." About the same time, he encountered Terry Law, the Tulsa, Okla., founder of World Compassion, a Christian aid group, who put him in touch with a book publisher.
"God had brought this together," the general said, "and I prayed about this and decided to go ahead. But this decision was not easy, as there's a vacuum of security in Iraq."
A week after the general's book came out in January, he was summoned by Rep. Peter Hoekstra, Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, to talk about weapons of mass destruction under Saddam. No one knows where they are in Syria, the general said, because the men who flew the lethal weapons into Syria aren't talking.
"It's not easy for pilots to say, 'Yes, I transported weapons of mass destruction,' " he said.
By Julia Duin