Simmering tensions and long-held mistrust have come to the surface this month in mass protests in Israel and continuing deadlock in the Gulf.
After two months of sanctions on Qatar by Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt, there has been no sign of a resolution. Despite previous tensions with Qatar, the current rift is the deepest ever. Diplomatic relations have been severed and embargoes imposed on travel, on food exports and on Qatari media. For Gulf citizens who often intermarry and have, until now, risked jail or fines for criticising another Gulf state, this comes as a shock. Now expressing sympathy for Qatar has become illegal!
Behind this crisis are allegations that Qatar supports extremism and the view of Saudi and its allies that Qatar is too independent and pro-Iran. Visits to the Gulf by President Erdogan of Turkey, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and mediation by Kuwait have so far failed to produce a breakthrough.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen is continuing to prevent aid from reaching areas held by Houthi rebels while the cholera outbreak has now spread to an estimated half a million people. The disease is relatively easy to treat but with 15 million Yemenis population currently unable to access healthcare, nearly 2,000 have died since April.
In the Holy Land, Israel has come close to seeing a large-scale Palestinian uprising. On 14 July, three Palestinian gunmen shot dead two Israeli police officers near the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. Israel initially closed the mosque compound that includes the mosque and the Dome of the Rock. The area was reopened after Israeli security had deployed new metal detectors and cameras and barred males under 50 from entry. These measures triggered anger locally and internationally. The following Friday, thousands travelled to Jerusalem to mark Friday prayers in the streets while others prayed in solidarity in public spaces in Gaza and the West Bank. At least one Palestinian protester was killed by police fire, while another Palestinian was shot by a settler.
The following week, tensions eased after the Israeli government took the step of removing the new metal detectors and barriers, but failed to address the underlying issues. Palestinians saw the measures as an Israeli government attempt to tighten access to the mosque and increase control. The King of Jordan, which has the oversight of the mosque according to a 1967 agreement, played a key part in urging Israeli leaders to reverse the new measures. Most analysts believe the situation is unsustainable and think that a larger crisis will come sooner or later.
There was finally some positive news in a new agreement reached by the two main rival leaders in Libya. The talks, hosted by President Macron in Paris, called for a ceasefire and elections early next year. The UN-backed Prime Minister, Fayez al-Sarraj, and opposing military figure, Khalifa Haftar, agreed not to use force except for counter-terrorism. There is often room for manoeuvre in such deals, however, as the “terrorism” proviso could easily be exploited. The deal was criticised for giving Haftar more than the UN-backed government. Haftar is very much the old type of strong military ruler who gives little sign of wanting to share power.
For Christians of the region, things remain precarious. The US issued its annual religious freedom report on 15 August, listing four Middle East countries “of particular concern” and categorising four others as “tier 2” in terms of religious freedom violations. In highlighting the report, US Secretary Rex Tillerson drew specific attention to the situation of Andrew Brunson. This long-serving American pastor in Turkey has been jailed since October on charges that he belonged to the movement blamed for the failed 2016 coup. A worrying newspaper report in the Turkish press repeated propaganda regularly issued against Christian ministry, alleging he was somehow leading a plan to divide the country. Christians have been worried that the ongoing purges in the country might affect them. Some rumoured that Brunson is being held as a bargaining chip for the government when negotiating complex demands with the US.
Far better news came in the release of Amin Naderi in Iran. He had been in prison since 2014, when a group of Christians were arrested at a Christmas celebration. His health has been poor as he has been on a hunger strike. Middle East Concern reported that he has been released on bail. There are still other believers facing the threat of jail. Please keep them in your prayers.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, travelled to Khartoum at the end of last month to inaugurate Sudan as a new province of the Anglican Communion. During his visit, the Archbishop visited various congregations in the country, met with Muslim leaders, and with Sudan President, Omar al-Bashir with whom he discussed the issue of freedom of religion. Welby told reporters he had pointed to the good relations he had witnessed between Muslims and Christians in refugee camps in a southern district of Sudan.
Christians in Sudan face a complex situation. Sudanese authorities announced plans in February to demolish 27 Christian churches across Sudan, but these plans were shelved after a court appeal. President Trump has postponed his final decision on whether to continue to ease sanctions that were lifted temporarily by President Obama. The suspension of sanctions was a ‘carrot’ offered to the Bashir regime to win cooperation on terrorism and an improvement in human rights, including the treatment of Christians.
From Iraq, news of several hundred Christian families returning to their homes in areas liberated from so-called Islamic State (IS) has raised hopes. But the process of repairing housing and restarting businesses is a long one and many who were forced to abandon their towns are in two minds about returning. Grocer Anwar Aziz in a report on SAT-7’s Bridges said, “Daesh (IS) destroyed everything, our home is burnt down and the shop is destroyed. Our return must be conditional. The place must be secure for our return.”
Father Emmanuel Adel, a church leader in Ankawa where thousands of Christian families took refuge, said, “The people of Mosul have no trust in their neighbours. Let’s be realistic and say it honestly. They lost trust in their long-time neighbours, but they still wish to return.”
Meanwhile, the case of some 100 Iraqi Christians detained in Michigan by migration officials and now facing deportation to Iraq sent shock waves among Middle Eastern Christians in the US. Many had supported President Trump after he repeatedly spoke out in favour of protecting Christians in the Middle East during his election campaign. The potential deportees all have a criminal conviction, though this could have been given decades ago or for a minor offence. Their families voiced their fears of persecution or worse if their loved ones are deported.
29 July marked the fourth anniversary of the abduction of Jesuit priest Father Paolo Dall-Oglio in Raqqa, Syria. He was taken captive by IS terrorists as they took over the city. He served for decades at a monastery near Damascus, and transformed it into a much-respected interfaith dialogue and cultural centre. Some continue to hope that he is alive. At SAT-7, we also remember Aleppo’s Syriac Orthodox Archbishop, Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim, who was a member of our advisory board and a true friend of SAT-7. He disappeared along with Greek Orthodox Bishop Boulos Yazigi on a journey to negotiate the release of two kidnapped priests. To this day, we still do not know what happened to them.