In a year of intense conflict, the region’s balance of power and national borders have come under acute pressure from insurgencies, fighting forces with competing aims, and the involvement of major powers.
The turmoil in Syria, Libya, Yemen and Iraq has been violent and extreme. Together, these conflicts have driven more than 15 million people from their homes – more than one in twenty in the region. Hundreds of thousands have been killed here over the last 5 years (400,000 in Syria alone), and 2016 has seen an acceleration of brutality and destruction. As East Aleppo citizens this week sent harrowing farewell messages on social media, the Russian-backed Assad offensive against rebels in the city marked a turning point – but at an immense human cost. The material damage to homes, markets, public buildings and crucial infrastructure across the region has turned vibrant areas into shattered wastelands. In Yemen the destruction in the region’s poorest country has left seven million on the brink of starvation.
Economically, the conflicts have also impacted neighbouring countries that are hosting millions of refugees. In addition, the sharpest fall in the price of oil since the 1990s has affected the Gulf countries, Iran, and Algeria. Saudi Arabia has cancelled billions of dollars’ worth of projects. Unemployment and shrinking revenues, the volatility of international markets, and a sharp fall in tourism in countries like Egypt, Tunisia and Turkey are taking their toll. Israel’s blockade of Gaza, its separation wall, settlements and restrictions on Palestinians’ movement are halving the Palestinian Territories’ economy, according to a September 2016 UN report. Nations like Egypt are borrowing heavily and have had to take hard decisions and cancel subsidies on essentials – always a politically explosive issue. Egypt’s deal with the IMF secured a welcome injection of cash, but required harsh reforms, causing more hardship for the country’s poor – some 28 per cent of the population.
Multiple terror attacks
Security deteriorated as terrorism and insurgencies stalked the region. Egypt faced multiple terror attacks. The devastating bombing of a church adjoining Cairo’s Coptic cathedral made international headlines, but other attacks on Christians, the military, and government bodies in Sinai went on throughout the year. Turkey’s ceasefire with the Kurdish PKK separatists, abandoned in 2015, was long forgotten amid a fierce resumption of hostilities. The PKK’s decision to bring warfare into the cities and attempt to declare independent zones in South East Turkey brought a heavy response from the Turkish military. Thousands of people fled the region. Iran, too, saw clashes with PKK-related fighters seeking to create a Kurdish region like that in Iraq and Syria. Suicide attacks on holy sites in Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, shocked the Muslim world. More positively, so-called Islamic State (IS) came under severe pressure in Iraq as a long-awaited operation to recapture Mosul and surrounding towns got under way. However, the end for such groups is far from sight.
Politically the year has been a mixed bag. In Turkey, the government took a more authoritarian turn after a surprise coup attempt in July and is altering state structures to give President Erdogan greater executive powers and curb dissent. In Iran, tensions between reformers and conservatives continued, as President Rouhani achieved some relief from sanctions and delivered some key diplomatic successes. Iraq continued to be pulled in multiple directions by Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish ambitions, with regional actors competing for influence. Yet, there were also some signs of hope. Tunisia, Jordan and Morocco saw elections, compromises and a confidence in mainstream politics and the granting of further civil and political rights.
The fallout for Christians
In Syria, an historic home for Christians, many became targets of jihadist groups or were caught in the crossfire between regime and opposition forces, and had to leave their homes. In Iraq, there was joy as Christians saw towns and villages they had called home reconquered from IS in the Mosul area. Church leaders and some citizens returned and held their first services after two years in exile. Yet, the grim conditions facing displaced Christians, the huge task of rebuilding infrastructure in liberated towns and questions over the future stability and shape of Iraq remain.
In Egypt, a complex picture continued to unfold. On one hand, the Al-Sisi government took positive steps to address the issue of church building permissions. On the other, Christian villagers in Upper Egypt on numerous occasions faced mob attacks with little or no protection from security forces, and the year ended with the loss of at least 24 lives at prayer in Cairo. In rural areas, Christians continued to face forced reconciliation meetings whereby they were asked to forgive their oppressors with no sign of regret or actual accountability or change in conditions.
In Turkey, the clampdown that followed the July coup attempt also saw the deportation or denial of re-entry to several foreign Christian workers. There was some closure in the sentencing of five men for the 2007 murder of three staff members of a Christian publishing house but frustration that the criminal network behind the plot was not exposed. Two churches faced harassment from local authorities and one was asked to shut down its services. Christians in the South East region had to shelter from the ongoing clashes between the Turkish military and PKK.
In Iran, positive economic developments and the Iran-US deal on nuclear enrichment did not lead to any let-up in the persecution of Christians. Some prisoners were released but others received harsh sentences on false charges such as “acting against national interests”.
In Lebanon, after two years without a president, a compromise between different political factions finally saw the appointment of Michel Aoun, a representative of the Christian community. (Under Lebanon’s power-sharing principles designed to handle its diverse population, the office of president is reserved for a Christian candidate.)
Perseverance under pressure
Christians in the Middle East have faced serious challenges at each reshaping of the region over the last 100 years: from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire to the shifting of borders after the 1967 Six-Day War. Since the 1990s, Christians also experienced increasing transnational terrorism and Islamism. Each of these moments has led to suffering, adaptation, survival and ultimately perseverance.
We cannot pretend that much of the news coming from the region is not bleak. But a bigger story is unfolding beyond our own expectations. That is the story of a Church that has survived persecution, wars, and massive changes for 2000 years. Even amid trauma, God’s Kingdom is seen – for example, in the thousands of Christians who are being changed as they welcome refugees and in the thousands of refugees who are encountering the love of Christ for the first time. In spite of the darkness, there are many opportunities for the people of the cross and resurrection to be living testimonies in a region that urgently needs voices of peace, conscience, reconciliation and hope.
The Briefing is provided by an independent Middle East analyst and does not necessarily reflect the views of SAT-7 UK Trust.