As the military war against so-called Islamic State enters a new phase, on the Church front, Christian leaders made bridge-building visits to the region’s beleaguered church communities.
The Syrian civil war entered a new phase this week, with the decision of President Trump to arm the Kurdish-led Syrian Defence Forces (SDF) with heavy weapons in preparations for the campaign to recapture Raqqa from ISIS. The policy was developed but not adopted during the Obama administration because of its controversial, long-term implications. The most immediate fall-out is with Turkey, as the YPG (which constitutes much of the SDF) is the Syrian wing of the PKK, an insurgency that has been fighting the Turkish state for some 35 years. Turks fear that this weaponry, and skills learned from US special forces, will be used against Turkey, even though the US administration has promised to prevent this.
Criticism also came from Syrian opposition groups that see the YPG as being solely interested in establishing a Kurdish state in North Syria, and cleansing Arab towns of their populations. The PKK is also a challenge for Iraqi Kurdistan and its ruling KDP party, which does not want PKK bases or its conflict with Turkey to disrupt the political hopes of Kurds in Iraq. After decades of suffering in the region, many Kurds have been excited by the signs of an emerging Kurdish state in Northern Iraq and the possibility of a Kurdish governed area in North Syria. The challenge that faces the region is how to balance all these competing ambitions.
There is good news in the fight against so-called Islamic State (IS) in Iraq, where the campaign to reclaim Mosul has liberated most of the city. Some Iraqi sources claim that it will be taken back in days if not a couple of weeks. The key questions then will be how the city will be governed and what kind of a future its existing and returning residents can look forward to.
Turkey’s President Erdogan heads to the USA for his first ever meeting with President Trump this week, after his meetings with Russian and Chinese leaders. The crisis that is unfolding with the arming of the Kurdish militants is much deeper than many outsiders realise. Since the breakdown of peace between the PKK and Turkish authorities in July 2015, nearly 3,000 people have been killed and several hundred thousand displaced in the renewed conflict.
In addition to frosty US-Turkey relations, EU relations with Turkey have also hit an historic low. Human rights in Turkey have continued to deteriorate, with thousands of citizens still in detention and thousands more losing their jobs. While Ankara has made some positive statements about its EU membership plans, so much has happened in recent months that there is a growing EU belief in the need to find an alternative way of engaging Turkey. Both sides need each other since the EU represents half of Turkey’s export market. Moves to create a new customs union agreement rather than offer membership might be the way forward. Interestingly, this could also enable an alternative framework for the UK to negotiate a new relationship with the EU beyond full membership.
New president in Iran?
On 19 May, Iranians will vote for their president. Amongst the six candidates, the competition has, in reality, boiled down to the current incumbent, Hassan Rouhani, and Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline cleric with ties to the Revolutionary Guard. All candidates spoke of their desire to keep the nuclear deal, but if Rouhani is replaced, this could have wide implications for Iranian policies across the region. This is particularly so if President Trump decides to cancel the nuclear arms deal pushed through by his predecessor. With the change of Supreme Leader of Iran on the horizon, due to the failing health of Ayatollah Khamanei, the question of who succeeds as president becomes even more important. However, as much as Rouhani is seen as a “centrist” or “reformist” politician, nothing has changed in the regime’s oppressive policies towards Christian and other religious minorities.
As if having half a million children in the grip of severe malnutrition isn’t enough, Yemen has been struck by a new outbreak of cholera. More than 110 people have died since April, and thousands are thought to be affected. The war that broke out in 2015 continues, with more than 8,000 people killed so far, and swathes of the population unable to access health or basic services such as clean drinking water. Pray urgently for Yemen that a political solution will be found soon and humanitarian aid brought in and distributed to those who need it most.
Egypt continues to need prayer for its economic challenges. There are worrying questions over its food and physical securities. The government continues with unpopular economic reforms, as it has no option but to reduce government subsidies and abandon unsustainable economic policies. The results, however, have been painful. In April, inflation rose to a three-decade high. Its currency has nearly halved in value since November and food prices rocketed by 40 per cent from 2016. The insurgency by an IS affiliate in Sinai continues and last weekend the group claimed responsibility for the deaths of three soldiers.
The group is also suspected to have been behind the 6 May shooting of a Christian man who returned to reopen his barber shop in El-Arish just two months after he and his family had joined a Christian exodus from the town. Hundreds of Copts fled after a series of IS killings in the town. A video threatening the lives of Egyptian Christians was released at the time, followed on Palm Sunday by twin suicide bomb attacks that killed 47 people.
On a positive front, May saw several important visits by global church leaders who expressed solidarity with the Middle East Church. Security was heightened in Egypt when the country hosted Pope Francis for a two-day visit in April. The global Catholic leader spoke at a peace conference held at Al Azhar university (one of the leading Sunni Muslim centres of learning), and met with President Sisi and Pope Tawadros, the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church. It was a significant visit that drew attention to issues faced by Christians in Egypt, and especially to the relatively small Catholic community of around 270,000 believers. This was the first papal visit to Egypt in 20 years.
Travelling in the other direction, Pope Tawadros also visited the UK this month. The Egyptian leader spent time with the UK Coptic Christian community and met a wide range of officials including Her Majesty the Queen and Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. Speaking at the Coptic cathedral in Stevenage, the Pope said that, in the face of a global rise in violence and terrorism Christians “must present love in action”.
Earlier in the month, the Archbishop Welby spent ten days visiting Christians, refugees and government figures in Jordan, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza at the invitation of the Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem. Pray that the learning and networking undertaken by Coptic, Catholic and Anglican leaders this month will have positive outcomes for all communities concerned.
Watch SAT-7 interview with Archbishop Justin Welby on witness in a divided world (filmed in 2015)