The disturbing spectre of interracial conflict came to the fore in parts of the Middle East and North Africa this month. It was most extreme in reports of genocide from Darfur, Sudan, but evident too in events in Tunisia and in the ongoing conflict in the Holy Land.
The conflict in Sudan that has displaced nearly 3 million people has pushed the country to “the brink of a full-scale civil war, potentially destabilising the entire region”, a spokesman for United Nations General Secretary Antonio Guterres warned last week. The UN pronouncement came after an air strike on the city of Omdurman killed 38 civilians and wounded dozens more.
Meanwhile, more harrowing details emerged of mass killings in the Darfur region. In the UK, MPs heard a UN employee describe genocidal attacks in Darfur, his home region. A doctor said around 5,000 civilians of the African Darfuri community had been killed by Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitaries and Arab tribal militias. The attacks appear to be a fresh wave of ethnic killings that began in 2003. The International Criminal Court told the UN last Thursday that it had begun an investigation into reports of killings, mass rapes and alleged violence against children in Darfur.
Sudan’s seven neighbours met in Cairo at a summit called by Egypt last week aimed at bringing the three-month conflict to an end. They issued a joint statement calling for an immediate ceasefire, urging regional states not to interfere in the conflict, and committed to facilitating aid corridors. Both warring sides in Sudan used social media to praise the plan although they have made no steps to de-escalate the fighting. A Sudan government source at the weekend said that an army delegation had travelled to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, for talks with RSF representatives.
Concern continued to grow for the peoples of the Holy Land this month after the largest Israeli military operation in the West Bank in two decades. Some 3,500 residents of the Jenin refugee camp fled the town or hunkered down over 3-4 July as Israeli drones bombed targets and up to 2,000 ground troops searched for young fighters suspected of committing 50 attacks inside Israel this year. At least 12 people were killed, 900 homes damaged and many left without water or electricity. Parish priest Labib Deibs, whose church lost electricity and had its windows blown in, said, “We ask God to bring peace to this land because it desperately needs it. Human rights need to be protected for human beings to live a respectful life.” In a joint statement, British, Australian and Canadian foreign ministers said they were “deeply concerned” by the continuing cycle of violence and also urged Israel to reverse its decision to approve the construction of 5,700 new Jewish homes in the Palestinian Territories.
Meanwhile, the European Union last week called on the Palestinian Authority (PA) to hold “free, credible, inclusive, transparent and fair” parliamentary and presidential elections in order to strengthen its legitimacy. The PA, which exercises civil control over areas A and B of the West Bank (as defined by the 1993-95 Oslo Accords), has not held elections for 16 years.
Church’s crucial role
Cardinal Raphaël Sako, who heads the Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq, visited the UK at the invitation of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) this month. His church constitutes around 80 per cent of Iraqi Christians. Over three decades Christian numbers in Iraq have fallen from around 1.5 million to an estimated 200,000. In meetings with churches and government representatives, Sako stressed the importance of the Church’s role in promoting plurality, reconciliation and peaceful co-existence. He said that anti-Christian rhetoric in mosques, exacerbated by the rise of fundamentalists after 2003, had ceased since the visit of Pope Francis and the 2019 Human Fraternity document the Pope co-signed with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar. He stated that Christians are, however, still threatened by hostile militias. The cardinal called for a secular constitution that would secure their dignity and allow them fair representation in government institutions.
Iran-backed militias in Iraq, known as Popular Mobilisation Forces, have mushroomed to nearly a quarter of a million since they were first included in Baghdad’s security forces to combat so-called Islamic State in 2014.
Türkiye and Syria continue to suffer the effects of February’s devastating earthquakes. The total cost of damage in Türkiye has been estimated at over $80 billion. To help in getting the country’s already deteriorating economy on track, President Erdogan is visiting Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) this week. Reports say that the president is hoping to attract $25 billion in investments using methods such as privatisation and acquisition. One example already being negotiated is the operating rights for the sea port in the city of Izmir. A draft law before the Turkish parliament will increase taxes on corporations and financial institutions by 5 per cent in order to fund reconstruction.
Fresh concerns arose last week for the 4 million people living in rebel-held north-west Syria. Over 100,000 people there were made homeless by the earthquakes. Until now, aid has been delivered via Türkiye mainly through the Bab al-Hawa crossing close to the city of Idlib and through two temporary crossings that Syria permitted until the end of August. At a UN security council meeting last week, Syria’s ally, Russia, vetoed votes for this to remain open for another six months. Syria’s government then offered to keep the route open but without UN monitoring, which the UN is unlikely to accept.
Christian refugees report
A new report by four Christian NGOs has highlighted the situation of Iranian Christian refugees in Türkiye. The country is easily accessed by Christian converts facing persecution or jail sentences for their faith in Iran and allows them the freedom of worship prohibited in their homeland. However, many more believers with a credible claim have had their asylum applications rejected since Turkish authorities took over responsibility from UNHCR in 2018. Individuals also spoke of waiting for years without an interview, of workplace exploitation, and living in fear of deportation. The report called for greater transparency in the asylum process and said there is a “critical need” for international resettlement and refugee sponsorship programmes.
A recent episode of the SAT-7 PARS programme Insiders looked at the culture shock that refugees can experience when they are uprooted from their home nation, and explained how they can help themselves stay mentally healthy and socially connected. A new programme, Along the Borders, is providing advice to guide them through the multiple challenges that they face.
Migrants at risk
Tunisia’s treatment of black Africans hit the headlines again this month, six months after President Saied controversially claimed that African migrants were changing the country’s demography and culture and were increasing crime. The death of a Tunisian man following clashes in the coastal city of Sfax triggered local calls for African migrants to be expelled. Security forces reportedly transported hundreds of migrants to the Libyan border and abandoned them in searing desert heat. The Red Crescent picked up over 600 migrants and sheltered them while some Tunisians have given food and help to migrants in their towns after they were chased from their homes. The leader of Tunisia’s main opposition coalition described the incidents as “a black page in our history”. Please pray for the witness of Tunisia’s tiny Christian community and for SAT-7’s Tunisian partner, Perpetua, as Christians of different racial backgrounds participate together in its talk and worship programmes.
The Episcopal (Anglican) Church in the region is putting fresh energy into women’s ministries, the Jerusalem and Middle East Church Association reports. An annual synod of the diocese of Jerusalem devoted half of its time to hearing examples of church and community service by women in cities ranging from Baghdad to Damascus. Delegates heard how St Andrew’s Church in Damascus has become a place of refuge for people from many backgrounds and parts of the city.
Meanwhile, as schools and colleges across the region break up for the summer, pray for Christian witness at this time. Many churches and groups in the MENA region will run children’s and youth camps and clubs which can be crucial in helping them embrace their inherited faith and grow in Christ. Some 150 young people from all over Türkiye recently attended an annual Revival Youth event, although others were unable to attend because they were helping with the ongoing earthquake relief effort. SAT-7 TÜRK was the main conference sponsor this year. SAT-7 TÜRK Deputy Executive Director, Gülsüm I, explained that SAT-7 recognises the vital role such gatherings have for isolated young believers. She said many delegates thanked her for SAT-7’s support and quoted one who said, “Participating in an event like this at this time of my life, and getting away from Istanbul, was exactly what I needed.”