While 2017 saw military power finally overwhelm the territorial ambitions of so-called Islamic State, the lasting effects of conflict, continuing struggles between regional powers, and increasingly forceful policies being pursued by some mean that this is set to be another challenging year for the region.
Iran made headlines at the turn of the year in a way that no-one had expected. Apparently spontaneous protests against economic hardship began in many towns and escalated into more political and sometimes violent clashes, leading to several thousand arrests. The so-called “Arab Spring” taught us how difficult it is to forecast these sporadic outbursts. We also learned to be cautious in trying to understand the causes and eventual effects of these uprisings. The latest Iranian protests were the largest since the 2009 demonstrations after a disputed election result. But analysts noted that these were very different: no opposition figures were involved, there was no single demand or goal, and no united call for change in government. The latest demonstrations were largely led by poor and working-class Iranians, angry at soaring prices, corruption and a failure to see the economic benefits from the nuclear agreement that they had been promised.
There has been noisy debate on how Western countries should respond. While some US commentators argued this was a time to push for regime change, cautious voices saw no likelihood of regime change, and emphasised calls for Iran to uphold human rights standards in its response to the protesters. This year is set to be tricky for Iran. Its regional activities have stretched its capacity, its economy is already is in difficulty, and while President Trump has said he will renew the sanctions waivers one last time, a collapse of the nuclear enrichment agreement would cause severe problems. There is also the question of who might replace the ailing Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, in the near future.
Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional rival, meanwhile, undergoes more changes as Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman assumes greater power. He has wide appeal among younger citizens who welcome liberalisation moves, including lifting the ban on women drivers (this June) and allowing women to attend football matches for the first time (last week). His clash with the older elite, however, continues. Many influential and important figures are still detained on corruption charges or have been ordered to hand over their assets to the state. The strongly proactive foreign policies he has introduced seem set to continue. The devastating war in Yemen reflects his determination to confront Iranian influence in the region, and he is likely to continue the pressure on Qatar to bring it back into line with the policies of the other Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC). Much of his focus, however, will be on preparing to become the country’s King and on pursuing economic reforms. Some, however, foresee possible attempts to prevent his coronation.
A continuing legacy from 2017 will be the Trump administration’s decision to declare Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and the reactions this will trigger. The decision prompted unprecedented international criticism and dismay among much of the region’s Christian community who felt ignored by the decision. Thankfully, protests have been smaller and clashes less severe than feared, but the long-term impact will become clearer this year as we learn more about changes to US policy on the two-state solution; a solution that has been seen by many to undergird the current “peace process”.
Turkey will continue its state of emergency this year, in the run-up to elections in 2019. Its relations with the European Union as well as the United States are at a historic low point. This is significant since democracy and human rights in Turkey will be assessed against the EU criteria for accession in April. Although a dramatic breakdown of EU-Turkey relations is not expected, 2018 will be a rocky road for US-Turkish relations. US policies on Syria are a special bone of contention, but relations have also been strained by a New York court case against a state-owned Turkish bank executive, the arrests of American citizens in Turkey, and the US refusal to extradite Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen. Both countries temporarily suspended visas for tourists to each other’s countries, and Turkey has now issued a travel warning to Turks visiting the US after America heightened security advice for its citizens in Turkey. Meanwhile the purge of people in public office and crackdown on media criticism continues, as the Turkish republic seems to be sliding towards a single party regime.
Syria will remain fragmented and unstable, even if the Assad government succeeds in crushing the remaining centres of opposition. New peace talks brokered by Russia, Iran and Turkey are due to take place imminently in Astana. Meanwhile, the US pursues its own campaign against so-called Islamic State (IS). This has now entered a new phase of ensuring IS does not return to the territories it had held. There is now a level of security and stability for civilians to return. New tensions have resulted, though, from a US decision to create a new border force army containing Kurdish fighters who are linked to the same network (the PKK), which is at war with Turkey. How the many different interests can be balanced, along with the increased Russian and Iranian presence in the country, is far from clear. We can only pray for a reduction in the violence and ask that all sides will recognise the destruction they have caused.
Last year, Iraq came close to break-up as Kurdistan went ahead with a controversial referendum to declare their secession from the country. Regional countries, as well as the UK, US and EU clearly warned against the move as the Kurdish ambitions included disputed territories and some key oil sites. While the Kurds voted almost unanimously for independence, border and airport blockades by Baghdad and swift advances by Iraqi forces led the Kurds to lose control of disputed areas, border crossings, and revenue from oil-rich Kirkuk. Divisions among the Kurds deepened amid the political chaos and many now feel betrayed. While no new escalation between Erbil and Baghdad is expected, Iraq nevertheless faces immense challenges to remain unified and to restore the areas recaptured from IS. In May, the country will elect a new parliament that will then choose a new Prime Minister. It seems that former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who was ousted due to his sectarian and authoritarian policies, will run against current PM Haider al-Abadi.
In March, there will be a presidential election in Egypt. Current incumbent President al-Sisi has not officially declared he will be running, although all analysts expect him to. The decisions of several candidates who have come forward and then pulled out of the race abruptly raises suspicions of pressure. Another military man, General Sami Anan, recently announced that he will run for the post, although few rate his chances over al-Sisi. Memories of the popular revolution that ousted former president Mubarak have given way to a return to the way things were.
Sunday (14 January) marked the seventh anniversary of the revolution in Tunisia that sparked the wave of Arab uprisings deemed “The Arab Spring” and brought an end to the authoritarian rule of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Tunisia is in fact the only country that has fulfilled some of the hopes behind the wave of protests. But the country faces many economic challenges due to the collapse of tourism and the high number of Tunisian fighters with IS. Many agree, though, that the country is more resilient and maturing democratically. In contrast, the chaos and humanitarian challenges in Libya and Yemen seem set to continue.
So what does all of these mean for the Christians of the region this year? Sadly, the risk of terror attacks against Christians across North Africa and Middle East will remain high, especially as groups like IS transform into insurgencies. Although there has been great news of Christian villages being now freed from jihadist control in Syria and Iraq, the number who will return to war-damaged areas without infrastructure and the danger from mines is likely to be small. Sadly, the decline of Christian presence in Iraq and parts of Syria will continue.
While in places like the Holy Land, Egypt, Iran and Turkey the number of Christians remains more constant, they face serious challenges from insecurity and discrimination. They are often scapegoated during moments of national crisis despite having nothing to do with the events. The most encouraging signs remain the faithfulness of the region’s church and an increased questioning amongst some from other backgrounds, who have been disillusioned by the violence perpetrated in the name of religion, and see examples of Christians who model peace and reconciliation. Pray for the Church in the Middle East.