Another month, another surprise twist in world affairs. This month the election of Donald Trump as the next US President sent shock waves across the world, including the Middle East. Meanwhile, the long-heralded operation to liberate Mosul from so-called Islamic State gave new hope to displaced Iraqi people.
The details of President Elect Trump’s policies for the Middle East are still unknown, but his choice of appointees to key posts will have many implications. He also made strong statements during his campaign on some important issues affecting the region. On Iran, Trump condemned President Obama’s nuclear deal with Tehran and lifting of sanctions. He also criticised Obama’s handling of the Syria crisis as ineffective, expressed views in support of Russia and critical of NATO, and gave warm signs to President Erdogan when he visited Turkey. President Sisi of Egypt was among the first to call and congratulate Trump on his victory. In the US, Catholic bishops responded to Mr Trump’s vow to introduce “extreme vetting” of Muslims and to calls made by some state governors to suspend Obama’s Syrian refugee resettlement plan. Bishops said the US has a duty to “protect newcomers, particularly refugees” and urged the next president to “promote humane policies that protect refugee and immigrants’ inherent dignity” and “keep families together”.
The Iraqi campaign against so-called Islamic State (IS) entered a new phase with the launch on 17 October of the operation to liberate Mosul. A month later, Iraqi forces and other groups supported by the US and allies have recaptured many villages and towns close to Mosul – a number of which housed mainly Christian communities. They entered the city itself for the first time on 2 November.
In Mosul they face the challenge of conducting operations while avoiding civilian casualties in a city of 1.5 million inhabitants. IS are literally “dug in” with a complex network of underground tunnels and hide-outs. They are using civilians as human shields and respond to any “collaboration” with outside forces with customary barbarity. Some 40 civilians were shot and their bodies hung on telegraph poles as a warning to others. Analysts agree that the worst fighting is still to come. The theatre of conflict is further complicated by the involvement of regional ground forces and support from international actors who all have different interests in the future of Mosul.
Iraq – praying “for God’s plans to prevail”
Nevertheless, there have been heartening stories of Christian church services being held once again in churches in the liberated outlying villages and towns. Although many church premises have been ransacked and partially destroyed, these gatherings have sent a message of hope to the tens of thousands of families displaced in the region who long to go home. In Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, which has become home to around 10,000 Christian families, believers have been celebrating and praying for the full liberation of their homelands. On Friday (18 November) up to 50,000 are expected to gather for Christ Day, an interdenominational prayer event. Maher Barbary, director of Life Agape which is organising the event, said they will pray for “God’s plans for Iraq to prevail”. SAT-7 will broadcast this and invite viewers across the region to unite in prayer with their Iraqi brothers and sisters.
The fight against IS also continues in Libya. Scores of IS militants are said to have retreated into coastal areas where US forces aim to push forward before the change of presidency. Yet the long-term picture in Libya as well as the Yemen conflict is still bleak. A UN peace plan to halt the war between Houthi rebels (backed by Iran) and Yemeni government forces (backed by a Saudi-led coalition) was rejected by President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. Although not made public, it is understood that the plan would have sidelined Hadi and given roles to less divisive figures and a share in government to Houthi representatives.
In Turkey, arrests of leading Kurdish politicians and the closure of Kurdish TV channels and charities caused serious concern. The outlawed Kurdish militant group, the PKK, continued its attacks in retaliation as Turkish troops launched operations against them in Syria and Iraq and southeast Turkey. President Erdogan has been looking to introduce a new constitution since his AKP Party won parliamentary elections 12 months ago. One aim is to transfer more executive powers from the Prime Minister to the President. After the failed July coup, Prime Minister Binali Yildrim announced consultations with other parties on a new draft constitution. Tightened security developments also began affecting some Christians. A few foreign Christians who lived in Turkey and worked with local churches have been either deported or banned from entry. One American Christian pastor is being held in detention.
In Egypt, economic turbulence has triggered anger and hardship. The Egyptian pound fell 48 per cent against the dollar, inflation has soared and many Egyptians face serious shortages of basic food necessities. A new International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan of $12 billion in instalments required cuts to some subsidies, such as fuel and wheat, and taking painful reform steps. A call for mass protests on 11 November was made on social media by a hitherto unknown group. A heavy security presence on the streets and suspicions about the origins of the call meant it went largely unheeded, however. While students at the American University in Cairo protested a massive hike in tuition fees, most of Egypt’s poor concentrated on the daily business of survival.
In such contexts, Christians sometimes find themselves facing social pressure and anger. Reports emerged this month of Christian children in some Egyptian schools being forced to recite the Quran – beaten if they failed – and Christian girls being forced to wear headscarves.
There was some relief in Lebanon where, after two and a half years, rival parties finally agreed on a new president. Former general Michel Aoun, a Maronite Christian, was voted in by MPs to fill a 29-month vacuum in the presidency. The deadlock was broken after Saad Hariri, who heads the largest bloc in parliament, said he would support Aoun. The new president’s appointment is unlikely to be viewed positively by Israel, Saudi Arabia or the US, however. Aoun has strong political ties to Hezbollah and is expected to lean towards pro-Iranian policies.
The Briefing is provided by an independent Middle East analyst and does not necessarily reflect the views of SAT-7 UK Trust.