A US announcement this month brought a decades-long conflict to the fore, even as peace appeared on the horizon in Iraq with victory over Islamic State. Meanwhile, hopeful signs of religious tolerance emerged elsewhere in the region.
The status of Jerusalem became a focus of anger this month. Since a 1995 vote by Congress, four US presidents have promised to declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel and move the US Embassy there from Tel Aviv. Until last week, each had deferred implementing the “Jerusalem Embassy Act” for national security reasons and had backed negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians on the city’s status. According to the peace process, this was to be settled in the final stages of a peace deal. President Trump reversed this (7 December) and announced US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and that he would order the move of the US Embassy.
While Israel welcomed the move as a recognition of “reality”, it triggered global criticism, not only from Muslim states, but from the European Union and close US allies like France and the UK. It was also censured by Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury, by Middle Eastern Christian leaders, including Jerusalem’s 12 Orthodox patriarchs and the city’s Lutheran and Episcopalian bishops, and by key bodies such as the Middle East Council of Churches. A UN Security Council emergency meeting witnessed a rare occasion where all other member states condemned the United States.
Although President Trump and his staff have said the US remains committed to the peace process and believes that the status of Jerusalem should be determined as part of a two-state solution, the move sends the opposite message. Many warned that it risked a long period of unrest not only in the West Bank and Gaza, but across the region. Some said that the uniliteral act disqualified the US as a neutral arbiter in the peace process. Thousands protested in the West Bank, Lebanon, Morocco, Yemen, and in Turkey, whose President Erdogan called an emergency summit of Muslim heads of state. US Vice President Pence is due to travel to the region to restart peace talks, but many are refusing to meet with him.
The last days of IS?
In Iraq, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory in a three-year war to expel so-called Islamic State. UK Prime Minister Teresa May congratulated the Iraqi government and expressed hopes that this would be the start of a “new chapter for a more secure and prosperous country”. At their height, the group had controlled almost one third of the country including the Nineveh region that had been the historic home of most of Iraq’s Christian population. Since the expulsion of IS, over 6,000 Christian families have returned.
In Syria, too, we may be seeing the last days of the IS “caliphate”. Heavy Russian airstrikes and Syrian artillery fire brought about the recapture of Deir ez-Zor, the last major IS-controlled city. On a brief visit to Syria, Russian President Putin, whose backing has enabled the Assad regime to withstand all opposition, praised Russian troops for delivering victory against Assad’s enemies. Yet, the human tragedy of Syria continues. The arbitrary violence and aerial bombings have yet to cease, six million Syrians have fled across borders and countless cities lie destroyed by multiple military forces. History will not be kind to leaders who gladly sacrificed the security and lives of millions to hold on to power or assert their regional agendas – not least those who pursued evil visions in the name of God.
Surprises and suspicions
A spike in violence around Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, and the assassination of its ousted president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, have done nothing to ease the humanitarian crisis there. International opposition to greater Iranian influence in Yemen has seen a muted response to the Saudi-led war against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels and to Saudi blockades of ports and air strikes on Sanaa. Consequently, three-quarters of the country are food insecure and some 8.5 million on the brink of starvation. Ex-president Saleh was killed by the same Houthi rebels he had allowed into the capital as part of an unlikely alliance he forged with them in 2014. His death followed a speech in which the Machiavellian leader, famed for deal making, switched sides once again to offer talks with the Saudis. Saleh’s death marks a worrying turn in an already intractable situation.
In Turkey, the state of emergency continues to cause concerns over the rule of law and the direction of the country in the run-up to presidential and national assembly elections either this coming year or in 2019. Suspicions of corruption have also been fanned by a New York court case where an Iranian-Turkish gold trader is on trial for breaking US sanctions and undertaking money laundering operations. The trader claims to have bribed multiple Turkish ministers, giving one of them at least 30 million euros over the years. A Turkish opposition party has also accused President Erdogan’s family of having substantial funds in offshore companies. The national media dismissed the allegations as the work of enemies of Turkey.
After some deeply confusing and unsettling weeks in Lebanon, Prime Minister Saad Hariri returned to the country after visiting Egypt and France, and revoked his surprise resignation made while in Saudi Arabia. The resignation and Hariri’s rhetoric against the Lebanese political and military group, Hezbollah, was seen as being ordered by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman. Some speculated that the prince was seeking to goad Israel into war against the group. More positively, the Saudi prince has also been seeking to curb the influence of Saudi’s powerful religious establishment. In the latest move towards increasing tolerance, he is lifting the 35-year ban on commercial cinemas.
Encouraging signs of religious tolerance came from Morocco and the United Arab Emirates. In Morocco, an unprecedented conference calling for an increase in the rights of religious minorities within the kingdom took place under the title “Freedom of Conscience and Belief: Between Recognition and Coexistence”. Although Morocco recognises Judaism as a faith for native Moroccans, Baha’is and Christians are becoming more outspoken in calling for freedom to choose and express their faith. King Mohammed’s message to the conference was encouraging: “We, in the Kingdom of Morocco, see no reason for denying religious minorities any of their rights”.
The UAE also saw a significant move when the Abu Dhabi justice system signed an agreement giving churches the authority to mediate, execute marriages, divorces and soon handle custody issues for the first time. This means that Christians will no longer have to use Shia courts and systems. Revd Bishoy Fakhri, pastor of the Cathedral Church in Abu Dhabi, described the new measures as an “exemplary move”. Abu Dhabi also saw the first ever united Christian prayer event in the national theatre, which drew together Evangelicals, Catholics, Orthodox and Anglicans from across the Emirates.
Sadly, religious tolerance was a million miles away when Egypt experienced the biggest terror attack in its history. More than 300 worshippers were killed in a well-planned and sustained attack by an IS affiliate on the Al Rawda mosque in the Sinai region. Many deduced that the mosque was a target because it was the birthplace of an influential Sufi cleric – Sufi Islam being seen as heretical by extremists linked to IS. Egypt also witnessed a strange episode that had shades of the Hariri resignation. Two days after the former Egyptian Prime Minister, Ahmed Shafiq, declared he would run for the presidency next year, he said he had been banned from leaving the UAE, where he was currently living. Shortly after that, the UAE deported him in a private plane to Egypt, where his daughter said he had gone missing. He later emerged denying that he was being held or kidnapped, but he said he was now reviewing his decision.
Finally, remember Libya in your prayers. Recent media reports have shown how slavery is common in the collapsed nation. At public slave markets, Africans trafficked from across the continent are being sold to buyers who pay a few hundred or a thousand pounds for a human being. Slavery has long been a problem across North West Africa and the desert region, but Libya’s failed state status and the migrant routes to Europe have re-established this ancient crime as a large-scale operation.