A week after twin earthquakes in Türkiye destroyed buildings across an area the size of Germany the human scale of the disaster was becoming clear. By Sunday the combined death toll in Türkiye and Syria had passed 33,000, the number of lives claimed in Türkiye’s 1939 quake.
Reports spoke of towns where 80 per cent of buildings had been levelled and places where no-one can identify the dead because whole communities have been wiped out. Aid was hampered by severe weather, collapsed tunnels and roads and, in the rebel-held Syrian province of Idlib, by the area’s near-complete isolation. Turks everywhere waited anxiously for news of missing relatives. Syrians, whether in their own country or having taken refuge in Türkiye’s border region, suffered further tragedy.
The Christian community in Türkiye and government areas of Syria, although reeling from the disaster, mobilised to serve local populations. Staff at SAT-7’s Istanbul studio shared how churches in Hatay province where some had been baptized and married, were now in ruins, their own families had fled damaged homes, and many friends and relatives were missing. The Evangelical church in Iskenderun lost its pastor and his wife, although their 10-year-old son survived. A pastor and his wife in Malatya escaped when they were pulled from their collapsed home by neighbours. In Aleppo, Syria, a Greek Orthodox priest died in the rubble of the Melkite cathedral while a former archbishop was hospitalised.
SAT-7’s Turkish and Arabic channels responded through their live programmes, sharing information, showing solidarity, and hearing from people in affected areas. A volunteer team of Lebanese firefighters spoke live from Aleppo to the You Are Not Alone programme and, afterwards, reported that they had successfully rescued a mother and child.
Churches and organisations of all denominations in Syria and Türkiye sent emergency aid to affected areas or used what they had to provide food or shelter to survivors. Many have taken refuge in church halls, hospitals, schools and convents. Video footage of survivors being rescued as late as Monday brought some joy amidst the sense of overwhelming loss. It was encouraging, too, to see that over 100 countries had sent help, from rescue and medical teams to portakabins used for last year’s World Cup. Please pray for the coordination of relief, for aid to reach the most remote areas, and for the massive housing and other needs.
Less than a month ago, President Erdogan announced that presidential and parliamentary elections would be brought forward one month to 14 May. Whether the earlier date is now met, commentators believe that the state’s ongoing response to the disaster will have a big influence on how people vote.
SAT-7 UK will be launching our Earthquake Appeal in March, to enable us to bring comfort to those affected for the longer term. If you would like to give donations to the work of SAT-7 in the region, please click here.
Appeal to “deceived youth”
Iran last weekend marked the 44th anniversary of its Islamic Revolution with state-organised rallies and a televised broadcast by President Raisi that was briefly interrupted by an anti-government message inserted by hackers. Raisi used his speech to appeal to “deceived youth”. He called those who have taken part in mass protests since September to repent in order to be pardoned by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini. A large number of pardons were announced on Sunday amidst reports that individuals had to sign pledges not to “reoffend”. Iranian Christians are giving thanks that Zaman (Sahab) Fadaei was released from Evin prison as part of the pardon. He had been serving six years for “acting against state security through propagating house churches and Zionist Christianity”.
There was an outcry in Iraq, meanwhile, over the murder of a female YouTuber by her father. Tiba al-Ali was killed on 31 January over her decision to live alone in Türkiye. Police said they had tried to arbitrate between Tiba and her family in a long-running dispute. However, there were calls on social media for public protests over her death and over Iraq’s lack of robust legislation on domestic violence and “honour crimes”. A 2014 bill has stalled in parliament over legislators’ concerns that it could “erode Iraq’s social fabric”.
There was more hopeful news for women in another patriarchal society. Sally Azar became the first Palestinian female pastor in the Holy Land. She was ordained at the Lutheran Redeemer Church in the Old City of Jerusalem and will serve there and in Beit Sahour in the West Bank. Azar becomes only the fifth woman church leader in the Middle East, the others being in Lebanon, Egypt and Syria.
The wider situation in the Holy Land remains worrying. January witnessed escalating violence with the shooting dead of seven Israelis outside a synagogue and 35 Palestinian deaths during Israeli raids in the West Bank. Patriarchs and heads of Churches in Jerusalem urged “all parties in the Holy Land to practise restraint and self-control” and warned of “an exploding, senseless cycle of violence that will only cause hurt and suffering to everyone”. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, visiting the Holy Land, also urged de-escalation and stressed US commitment to a two-state solution. This is something that the new Israeli government opposes.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Israelis protested outside the country’s Parliament on Monday (13 February) against the government’s planned overhaul of the judiciary. The proposals would hand control of judicial appointments to the government and also remove the power of the Supreme Court to overturn major legislation. Opponents see the changes as weakening Israeli democracy and its system of checks and balances.
Across in Tunisia, democratic processes failed to engage the electorate for a second time in two months. Just 11.3 per cent voted in a second round of parliamentary elections. The low turnout was a repeat of December’s first round and another blow to President Saied’s attempted reforms which replaced political party lists with individual candidates. Observers also saw the result as a sign of political indifference at a time when Tunisians are more interested in financial survival in the face of Tunisia’s economic woes and reduced food and energy subsidies.
Money troubles are no stranger to Egyptians, either. For most they are getting worse. Around 60 million of the population of Egypt are living below or just above the poverty line. Inflation reached 20 per cent in December and 37 per cent for food, while the Egyptian pound lost 50 per cent of its value in the last year. A $3bn loan from the IMF agreed in October is conditioned on reforms to make the economy more competitive.
For the middle classes who are feeling the pinch, the Egyptian Publishers Association has introduced an instalment payment scheme spread over nine months. Despite the challenges, the 54th International Cairo Book Fair – the largest in the Arab world – succeeded in attracting over a thousand publishers last month. Among them were around 20 Christian publishers from Egypt, able to keep prices relatively low by printing locally. A report for Dialogue Across Borders revealed the topics Christian publishers are highlighting for Arab readers as counseling, Christian education, theology in the 21st Century and leadership in the Church. Reporter Lara Gibson commented, “The range and depth illustrate the interest in Christian theology in Egypt and demand for insightful texts examining Christian issues in modern times.”
On Thursday 16 February a small SAT-7 TÜRK team will travel to southeast Türkiye to hear how Christians there are coping and serving the community and to document the damage to churches and the Christian heritage. Please pray for this.