The region continues to see seismic shifts, the campaign against Islamic State, persecution of Christians, and worrying signs of famine in Yemen.
The fighting in Syria grows ever more complex. Turkish troops and Turkish-backed groups recaptured the border town of Al-Bab from so-called Islamic State (IS), also achieving Turkey’s aim of interrupting the line of territory held by Kurdish forces along its border. But, when conflict broke out between Turkey and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in nearby Manbij, the US, which is working with the Kurds, deployed troops to prevent an escalation and ensure the focus remained on IS. The US military also decided to put more “boots on the ground” for the upcoming operation to recapture Raqqa, the proclaimed “capitol” of IS. Here, too, Turkish and US goals are in tension as Turkey wants to avoid any Kurdish participation in the battle for Raqqa. The result sees NATO allies USA and Turkey at cross-purposes. To further complicate matters, Turkey alienated Russia, a current ally (although one backs Syrian rebels and one backs the Syrian government), when its shelling of Kurds also hit some Syrian forces.
The third round of peace talks sponsored by Russia and Turkey began Tuesday (14 March) but with little expectation of ending the fighting any time soon. A double bomb attack in the Syrian capital of Damascus killed more than 40 Shiite pilgrims on Saturday (11 March) and the numbers of Syrians leaving the country show no sign of slowing. Pray for Syria, asking that the international players will put aside their own agendas and press for an immediate end to all conflict in the country.
In Iraq, the campaign to retake Mosul from IS made progress despite fierce resistance. Eastern Mosul was captured after a three-month battle. A trickier operation in the more densely populated West is under way, but Iraqi commanders are hopeful they can overcome IS within six months. Many civilians have been prevented from fleeing by IS and horrific sites of mass burials have been uncovered in captured areas. There are many unanswered questions on what the future for Mosul, and for wider Iraq and Syria, will be. Pray that peace-building and reconstruction will be given as much thought as the current military campaign.
On Monday, UN agencies said the two-year conflict in Yemen has killed nearly 7,700 people, including over 1,500 children. The wider fallout is even more severe, the UN warned, as about two-thirds of the population (more than 18 million people) need food aid and more than seven million do not know where their next meal will come from. The crisis in Yemen is part of a broader scenario in which some 20 million people in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and North East Nigeria are at risk or are experiencing famine.
In Egypt, inflation was the worry on many minds as the government continued long-term reforms designed to put the economy on a stronger footing as part of IMF loan agreements. A falling Egyptian pound and reduction of subsidies on everyday commodities is increasing the cost of living. Reports that the government was about to slash the number of state-sponsored loaves from 4,000 to 500 for each bakery crossed a red line for some. Crowds of demonstrators protested in a number of towns after bakeries refused to accept paper subsidy cards. However, The Economist reported that government measures were starting to increase inward investment, trade and tourism.
SAT-7 hears stories of Christians fleeing terrorism in North Sinai
Christians in north Sinai, meanwhile, felt the impact of worsening security in the country. In four weeks, militants linked to an affiliate of so-called Islamic State (IS) killed seven Christians in this increasingly lawless region. These attacks and continued death threats sparked an exodus of over a hundred Christian families to other towns. Local churches gave hospitality and accommodation and the government provided financial assistance and hostel shelters. IS also targeted other communities, killing a respected Sufi Muslim leader last month, and issuing threats against Sufis – whom many Islamists see as heretical – in the country.
In Sudan, the December 2015 imprisonment of two Sudanese pastors, Hassan Abdelrahim Tawor and Abdulmonem Abdumawla, and a Czech aid worker, Peter Jasek, attracted international attention. Jasek received a life sentence for alleged espionage and the Sudanese were given 10 years for assisting him, although their lawyers say the charges were baseless. Czech government intervention secured a pardon for Jasek at the end of February. On his release, Jasek spoke of poor treatment and beatings by IS supporters with whom he shared a cell. The two Sudanese pastors remain in prison. Meanwhile, reports arrived that Sudanese authorities ordered the demolitions of over two dozen churches, some of them homes used for worship.
In Turkey, government energies have focused almost entirely on the referendum due on 16 April. Turks will vote “Yes” or “No” to a series of constitutional amendments that will shift the country from a system where executive powers lie with the Prime Minister and checked by Parliament, to a system that would give unprecedented powers to the president. The Council of Europe’s legal and constitutional advisory committee, the Venice Commission, will release its legal assessment of the proposals this week. However, its conclusions have already been made public; they warn of one-person rule with the power to suspend parliament and appoint all ministers and high-ranking officials from judiciary to universities.
The rising nationalism in the country has been a concern for Turkish Christians, as have the seemingly arbitrary arrests of some since the coup attempt last summer. American Pastor Andrew Brunson has been under detention under the emergency laws since 7 October. To date, he has been given no clear outline of the charges against him although the Turkish Prime Minister has promised efforts to speed up his court case. Andrew and his family have been in Turkey for more than 20 years, pastoring a church in Izmir.
In contrast, there was positive recognition for a pastor in Lebanon, who is unique in the Middle East. Rola Sleiman is the first woman to be ordained in the region. Although she has pastored Tripoli Evangelical Church for some ten years, until now a male minister had to be present during sacramental services such as baptism and communion. Sleiman said, “The key is that people know me… because I had served with them, they saw what was in me and not just my gender.”
On a wider front, the Middle East Church has been at the forefront of providing care for many of the region’s displaced people, but has felt neglected by international governments in the distribution of aid. At a high-level gathering in Munich, Syrian Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II, appealed to Germany and the international community to “help us keep Christians in the Middle East”. Patriarch Aphrem, the spiritual leader of some 1.5 million Christians, said, “Churches [in Syria] are overwhelmed with the humanitarian services they are providing,” but little international government aid reaches them. In the face of “an organised effort to wipe out Christianity from the Middle East” by religious extremists, “Christians are leaving the region at an alarming rate,” he said. For Iraq, the Patriarch repeated appeals for Christians to be given a “safe haven”, backed by international support, where they can settle safely “at least initially until they can protect themselves.” Please pray that the international community will recognise the crisis and act on behalf of our brothers and sisters in the Middle East.