After three years of waiting and nine months of relentless conflict, the fight against so-called Islamic State (IS) has seen two major breakthroughs in the last couple of weeks. News from the Church in the region, meanwhile, revealed differing pressures and examples of believers showing great perseverance and responding to adversity with compassion and careful reflection.
Iraq’s second city of Mosul is now liberated and the walls of Raqqa, the stronghold of IS, have been breached. The brutal jihadist group has lost most of its territory and anything resembling its claimed geographical “caliphate”. But the fighting is not over and hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped in Raqqa will only complicate the urban war that is bound to unfold.
In Mosul, much of the west of the city is in ruins and thousands of its residents are emaciated and traumatised. A heartbreaking reminder of the evil we have seen emerged in a video of a female IS member approaching Iraqi soldiers with a baby in her arms. She detonated a suicide vest, killing all including the child. While their defeat on the ground is important, the conflict against IS will continue as the group mutates and seeks to wage guerrilla attacks in Iraq and Syria as well as in Europe.
Meanwhile, the warfare in Syria persists with little sign of de-escalation, except for some local ceasefires. President Trump’s threat to use force if Assad loyalists again unleash chemical weapons was backed by US allies but prompted fears of a larger US operation and possible clashes with Iran and Syrian government forces.
In Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government is campaigning for an independence referendum in September. The move has excited most Iraqi Kurds but an independent Kurdistan has generally been opposed by the international community and rejected by the Iraqi central government. There are concerns that independence could trigger a conflict between Arabs and Kurds and the Kurdistan Regional Government and other Kurdish movements. The disputed territories of Kirkuk – which has substantial oil resources and an ethnically mixed population – would be a hot spot. Including it within Kurdistan would divide local populations and be fiercely resisted by regional players.
In Turkey, clashes between the outlawed Kurdish PKK and Turkish forces continued. Turkey’s threats to invade the town of Afrin in north-west Syria to stop PKK-related groups deepening their control there has been met with warnings of further clashes. Meanwhile, a protest march launched by the leader of the main Turkish opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) gathered tens of thousands of people as it walked the nearly 300 miles from the capital, Ankara, to Istanbul. Named the “Justice March”, the protest banned the use of any party banners in order to unite everyone who wanted to express concern over deteriorating human rights conditions in the country. Last week, the European Parliament voted in favour of suspending Turkey’s EU accession bid. While the Parliament does not have the authority to make this decision, it sent a powerful diplomatic message to Turkey.
Sadly, a historic push to unify the divided island of Cyprus failed once again. Great diplomatic efforts were made by the UK and the UN, with US and EU support, to end the 40-year dispute between Cyprus and Turkey (which occupied the northern third of the country in 1974). It is always difficult to know who or what issues lead such talks to collapse, but this was seen by many as the last attempt at a solution.
While the Cyprus issue lapses back to the status quo, the new regional crisis unfolding between Qatar and the remaining members of the Gulf Cooperation Council – led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and backed by Egypt – continued to deepen. Qatar was given a series of ultimatums, including the closure of the Qatari-owned Al Jazeera TV channels. Qatar rejected these amidst threats of further sanctions. Current sanctions include food blockades and the denial of visas to its citizens. The crisis is strengthening Qatar’s ties with Turkey and relations with Iran. The bottom line of the crisis is Qatar’s political independence of the GCC. Qatar’s hosting of Muslim Brotherhood figures is also a sore point, especially for the Egyptian government.
There has been some worrying news from the church in the region. In Turkey, a change in city zoning plans has led to approximately 100 churches, monasteries and cemeteries belonging to the Syriac Orthodox Church in Turkey’s south east being taken over the state. This includes the lands of the historic Mor Gabriel monastery. There have been many attempts by local authorities to seize its land over the years that were always overruled by the High Court. The fate of these church properties is now uncertain and is adding to Christian fears over the direction of their country.
News also came of further arrests and harsh sentences for Christians in Iran. A court issued its verdict on the cases of three Iranian Christians. Middle East Concern reported that Pastor Victor Bet Tamraz was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment, and two other believers, Amin Afshar Naderi and Hadi Asgari, were imprisoned for 15 and 10 years respectively. Charges included “conducting evangelism”, “illegal house church activities” and the oft-used charge against Christians of “acting against national security”. Their lawyers will appeal the decision.
In Iraq, the rescue of one young girl from IS by Iraqi forces brought hope and encouragement to many Christians. Christina, then not quite three years old, was torn from her parents’ arms in August 2014 when IS overran Qaraqosh. SAT-7 interviewed her parents that year about their prayers for Christina and their belief that she was being looked after by a local family. This month, the channel was able to show footage of her reunited with her family and joyful community in Erbil. Her parents’ prayers had been answered in that she appears unharmed and to have been well cared for.
In Lebanon, the Institute of Middle Studies drew together Christian thinkers and “witnesses” from diverse settings in the region for its annual Middle East Consultation. Under the title “The Church in Disorienting Times: Leading Prophetically Through Adversity”, they explored vital topics such as persecution and suffering, minoritisation, hopelessness and despair, and emigration. You can read some exciting summaries of their discussions at the IMES Blog. Lebanon was also the setting for “We Will See Wonders”, a three-day gathering for prayer and teaching, attended by 3,000 people and broadcast by SAT-7. The large-scale event was an inspiration to Lebanese Christians who had seen similar mass festivals in Egypt, and united Christians from across the church spectrum.
In an expression of compassion and hospitality, an initiative by five Christian organisations to bring 500 refugees from Syria and Iraq to France began receiving the first group of refugees it has pledged to rehome. Their goal is to rehome 500 refugees by the end of 2018. Moved to undertake the project by watching reports of asylum seekers drowning in the Mediterranean, they reached an agreement with the former president of France, Francois Hollande, to create a “humanitarian corridor”. The initiative accepts both Christian and Muslim refugees, which makes their testimony all the more moving.