Even as the tide began to turn against so-called Islamic State, rival ambitions and visions made for fraught international relations in the region.
News from the region
In Syria last month so-called Islamic State (IS) came under intense pressure from all directions – from the US-led coalition, Kurdish forces, Syrian government troops and allies, the Iraqi army and shelling from Turkey. The tide has turned against the brutal organisation and its territorial control has been shrinking. However, a key question has been emerging: what will happen in the cities recaptured from IS? Who will rule them? There is still no agreement within or outside of Syria on an ultimate peace deal. For now, while the defeat of ISIS will be very good news, the next chapter will see a further struggle between the geo-political interests of regional powerhouses like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as Russia.
A vote by the German parliament to recognise the massacre of over a million Armenians by Ottoman forces in 1915 as a genocide sparked fury in Ankara. Turkey condemned the vote and recalled its Ambassador, while Turkish media and politicians made disturbing statements about the Nazis and German’s past. Normally, a call for MPs to vote on this issue occurs in the lead up to annual commemorations of the genocide in April. The timing of this vote has led to speculation that it was primarily a response to German domestic politics, since the country’s opposition groups have been condemning Angela Merkel for working too closely with Turkey to manage the refugee crisis.
Politics in Israel have taken a further turn to the right. Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon resigned from his post saying he had lost trust and confidence in Prime Minister Netanyahu. He was replaced by ultra-nationalist Avigdor Lieberman. Ya’alon had been seen as a pragmatic and balanced minister and, as a former chief of Israel’s armed forces, had good support within the defence establishment. Following his resignation, Ya’alon claimed that “extremism and dangerous forces have taken over Israel”. The appointment of Rabbi Yedua Glick to take Ya’alon’s parliamentary seat raised further concerns. Rabbi Glick has been a spokesperson for the Temple Mount movement that wants to rebuild a temple in Jerusalem and demolish the Al-Aqsa Mosque that currently stands on the mount. Concerned that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in serious danger, France hosted an international conference in Paris to push forward the peace process.
The bodies of more than 100 migrants – mostly women – washed up on a Libyan beach last week. Meanwhile, a boat carrying up to 700 passengers sank off the Greek island of Crete. While the EU-Turkey deal has significantly lowered deaths and the number of migrants attempting to cross the Agean, there are fears that smugglers and desperate migrants and asylum seekers are now taking far more dangerous longer routes into Europe.
In Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei blasted the US, Israel and ‘the devil United Kingdom’ as enemies of Iran. He accused the US of failing to deliver on promises made as part of the January 2016 nuclear agreement and warned that it should not be trusted. He made the remarks in a sermon marking the anniversary of the death of his predecessor and founder of Iran’s Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini. The same week newly declassified documents were released by the US government revealing direct talks it had with Ayatollah Khomeini while he was living in exile in Paris. Ironically, it showed that he had assured the US that he did not see the US as an enemy and an Islamic republic would be no threat to them.
News from the Church
In Upper Egypt, a mob of some 300 armed men attacked and burned seven homes belonging to Coptic Christians and stripped naked a 70-year-old Christian woman and paraded her through the street. The attacks in El Karm village followed rumours of a love affair between a Christian man (the son of the 70-year-old) and a Muslim woman in rural Egypt. Local Christians said police took two hours to respond to the incident and by then the attackers had fled. Local authorities are pressurising the Christians who were attacked to sign a reconciliation agreement which would absolve their attackers of all culpability.
Meanwhile, the mothers of three Egyptian Christians murdered for their faith were among those honoured at a celebration of 20 years of broadcasting by SAT-7 in Cairo, Egypt. Mrs Dawood, mother of two of the Coptic Christians beheaded by IS in Libya last year and Mrs Refaat, mother of a 13-year-old who died in a drive-by shooting at a church wedding, were given “Beacon of light” medals at the event. Although it had solemn moments, Christian leaders, worship choirs and broadcasters came together to celebrate 20 years in which many Arab Christians have become more public in using the media to witness to their faith.
In Turkey, we were saddened to see the courts release the last remaining suspect for the murders of three workers at a Christian publishing house in the city of Malatya in 2007. German citizen Tilmann Geske and Turkish believers Necati Aydin and Ugur Yüksel were tortured and killed by five ultranationalists. Necati Aydin was an actor who played the role of Jesus Christ in a theatre production that was aired by TURK-7 (now SAT-7 TURK). Police apprehended the suspects at the crime scene, yet their case continued for years leading to their release under new laws that limit the duration of court cases. Nine years later, there is still no conclusion to the case.
Last month, also saw the death of Kenneth E. Bailey, a prolific author and scholar who opened the eyes of many Western Christians to the Middle Eastern cultural context of the New Testament, Bailey began his career in village evangelism and literacy work in rural Egypt before moving on to teach theology in Beirut. Bailey’s books, such as Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes and Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes, demonstrated how western readers miss many nuances in the life and teachings of Christ because of the different cultural context.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew issued a call for unity as the leaders of 14 Orthodox churches prepared to meet in Crete this month. The focus of the Holy and Great Council will be on restoring relations with the Roman Catholic Church which ended at the 1054 “Great Schism”. This is an historic meeting as it will be the first time the Orthodox churches have gathered together for a thousand years.
The Briefing is provided by an independent Middle East analyst and does not necessarily reflect the views of SAT-7 UK Trust.