Christian communities in the Middle East and North Africa have been celebrating the unchanging message of Easter this month against a backdrop of changing political tides and economic and environmental pressures.
One of the largest displays of the region’s Christian presence was in the Nineveh plain of Iraq. There, tens of thousands processed through palm-decorated streets in the Christian town of Qaraqosh on Palm Sunday. Ankawa, the Christian suburb of Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, saw a similar demonstration. Both showed the resolution of a community that has seen its numbers fall dramatically since the sectarian violence following the fall of Saddam Hussein and the genocide inflicted by Islamic State.
Christians in Türkiye have been marking Easter in the aftermath of the February earthquakes. In the disaster zone, many congregations held worship in alternative church buildings as their own had been reduced to rubble. Members of the destroyed cathedral in Iskenderun were hosted by the city’s Greek Catholic Church. Some were bussed to a special service in the 4th century cave church of St Peter in Antioch.
In his sermon there, Fr Antuan Ilgit, Vicar General in eastern Türkiye, compared “our current state of mind” to that of Jesus’ disciples as they went to the tomb on the third day. “Due to the earthquake tragedy that turned our lives upside down, we experienced a different and quite difficult Easter preparation period this year,” Ilgit said. “But despite all these difficulties, Jesus Christ still rose from the dead, and with his resurrection, he gave us hope again, illuminating our lives with His light.”
In the village of Vakıflıköy, Hatay province, Armenian priest Fr Avedis Tabasyan encouraged worshippers to “let this Easter be a sign of our resurrection from the ruins. We fell to the ground, we were devastated. But the almighty God is strong enough to lift us up.”
Please pray for the SAT-7 TURK team and the churches of Türkiye and Syria as they continue to respond to the needs of local people of all faiths in the aftermath of the earthquakes. Donations to SAT-7’s earthquake response can be made here.
Throughout Easter, in both the Western and Eastern calendars, SAT-7’s TV channels and digital media aired special worship and devotional programmes to bring the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection to viewers across the Middle East and North Africa.
Yemen peace talks
On the political front, for the first time in over eight years there are signs of a possible resurrection for Yemen, a country that has endured some of the worst suffering in the Arab world. An agreement to restore relations between Middle East rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran has opened the possibility of peace talks between Riyadh, which backed Yemen’s official rulers, and the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels. Saudi and Houthi representatives arrived in the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, last week, joined by Omani mediators. The talks, aimed at achieving a permanent ceasefire, seem to have gone well. Please pray for further progress. According to the UN, an estimated 4.5 million Yemenis have been displaced by the conflict and around two-thirds of the population are in dire need of humanitarian aid.
There is contrasting news from Sudan. Tensions between the army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) exploded into fighting in multiple locations over the weekend, resulting in the deaths of around 100 civilians in the crossfire. The RSF was set up under ousted President al-Bashir and is headed by another member of Sudan’s current government. This apparent struggle for power is a further threat to the country’s promised transition to civilian-led rule.
Iran, meanwhile, shows no easing of the social policies that have provoked some of the largest protests since 1979. Under new measures, surveillance cameras will monitor women’s wearing of the head scarf. Women who defy the dress code will receive a police warning for their first offence. For further offences, courts could remove their internet connection, mobile phone use, driving licence or passport.
The application of the strict dress code to all, regardless of their religion, is seen as one example of Iran’s violation of freedom of religion or belief. This year’s annual report on Rights Violations Against Christians in Iran, released in February, revealed that the number of Christians arrested last year (134) was more than double that in 2021 (59). The report also noted increased use of supplementary punishments such as internal exile and demands for released Christians to attend “re-education” classes.
Elections in Türkiye
General elections in Türkiye on 14 May could be pivotal for a country that has been shaped for two decades by the leadership of former Prime Minister, now President Erdogan. In this time, he has switched Türkiye from a parliamentary to a presidential system. He has led the theoretically secular country down a more religiously conservative path and, in recent years, combined this with more nationalistic policies.
On the economic front, after over a decade of industrialisation and growth, recent years have seen rising national debt and soaring inflation. The collapse of thousands of modern apartment blocks in February’s earthquake disaster raised questions over the enforcement of building regulations that were tightened in 1999 and 2018. Six opposition parties have come together around a unity candidate, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who is currently slightly ahead in the polls. The race for the presidency will be tight.
Meanwhile, the European Union and international donors have pledged €7 billion to help Türkiye and Syria in their recovery from February’s earthquakes. In Syria the aid will be for humanitarian assistance rather than full-scale reconstruction until there is progress towards a political solution to the Syrian conflict. President Erdogan has put the cost of rebuilding in his country at $104 billion.
Israel has experienced unprecedented political turmoil since Prime Minister Netanyahu formed a coalition government at the end of December with several ultra-nationalist parties. These oppose any possibility of statehood for Palestinians and want to roll back liberal social policies. Mass protests against government reforms seen as weakening Israeli democracy climaxed in a nationwide strike and numbers of army reservists refusing to report for duty. Netanyahu announced he would shelve the reforms until the Israeli parliament reconvenes after Passover on 30 April.
Rising inter-racial violence and tensions also continued. Attacks included the killing of three British-Israeli women and heavy use of force in Israeli army operations that resulted in the deaths of four children as well as militants in the last two months.
Meanwhile, a number of Christian congregations in the Holy Land are facing pressure. The Evangelical Alliance of Israel requested prayer after Tel Aviv municipality failed to provide promised alternative premises to 25 churches after it pressured landlords to evict them. City authorities said the congregations, which mostly serve migrant workers, violated zoning requirements for “houses of prayer”. Five or six congregations hope to share one location that the landlord is prepared to continue renting out.
In Jerusalem, Orthodox Patriarch Theophilus lll called for greater protection for Christians after two Israeli men interrupted a service in the Church of Gethsemane, reportedly attacking a bishop and two priests. The incident follows a rising number of attacks on Christian businesses, holy sites and cemeteries, and physical and verbal abuse against clergy.
Controversial new legislation proposed by two members of the Netanyahu coalition would punish attempts to influence people in Israel to change their religion. The law specifically mentions Christian “missionary groups” and would impose a one-year sentence. Similar attempts have been defeated in parliament previously, however.
The picture in Tunisia is causing increasing concern. Italy, France and the European Union have warned that the country is on the verge of economic collapse, increasing the wave of migrants already crossing the Mediterranean. Tens of migrants leaving Tunisia in unseaworthy boats have already drowned this year and at least 12,000 have reached Italy, according to the UN. Calls for the expulsion of irregular migrants from sub-Saharan Africa by Tunisian President Saied are also driving the crossings.
Environmental concerns have become a priority in Egypt. This month it launched its latest satellite in order to monitor climate change. Just 4 per cent of Egyptian land is agricultural and that is shrinking due to urbanisation and population growth. The country is the most water-stressed in the world and could run out of water by 2025, according to a UNICEF report. Egypt’s foreign minister last month urged other Arab states to pressure Ethiopia whose new Grand Renaissance Dam is restricting the flow of the River Nile to Egypt.