Elections in regional big player, Türkiye, and a humanitarian disaster brought on by fighting in Sudan dominated this month’s Middle East news.
Above: Nadia Adel’s family lived near the airport on Khartoum which quickly became a target of fighting. She and her daughters Lobna and Neama tell how God protected them during their escape to Egypt.
Intense fighting between the regular army and Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary in Sudan resumed in several parts of the country on Saturday after two ceasefires had allowed some aid into the country. In West Darfur, the security vacuum created by the inter-army conflict permitted a fresh outbreak of ethnically-based attacks by Arab militias on African people. This has forced thousands of civilians to flee west to Chad. Darfur’s ethnic African community has experienced waves of extreme violence since former President al-Bashir armed Arab tribes to put down a rebellion in 2003, for which he has been indicted on charges of genocide.
Since April, Sudan’s conflict has displaced more than 1.4 million people internally. Some 476,800 have left the country, with Egypt receiving the largest number. SAT-7 ARABIC interviewed a number of Christian families who fled Khartoum. Nadi Adel escaped on foot and then by bus with her two young daughters. She described travelling through areas where the only people moving on the streets were the paramilitaries. Mido Abdel Aziz, described driving with his wife and children and pastor. At one point the pastor was nearly seized by the RSF. Mido’s family and the pastor’s are now living in the same house in Port Sudan. They limit themselves to one meal a day and have to drink bitter-tasting water from a well. He said, “Every morning we pray that the Lord will stop the war. As a church we have been dispersed across the country and outside.” Please pray for Sudan.
The presidential and parliamentary elections in Türkiye were another success story for President Erdogan and his AK (Justice and Development) Party. Although the presidential race went to a run-off for the first time, Erdogan narrowly achieved the 50 per cent majority needed with the support of the third candidate, an ultranationalist who agreed to back him. While the AKP benefited from a pro-government media and the support of most diaspora voters, the result still came as a surprise to many. Polls had shown a slight lead for the six-party coalition that formed around secularist opposition candidate, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu.
As Erdogan begins a third term as president, his hand is strengthened by the strong majority the AKP and its partner, MHP (Nationalist Action Party), won in parliament. However, the country is deeply divided. The president faces a major challenge to make good on promises to rebuild the more than 150,000 homes destroyed by February’s earthquake and to tackle an ongoing economic crisis and soaring inflation. Financial observers are hoping that his appointment of Mehmet Simsek, a well-regarded former finance minister, will produce a return to more orthodox economic policies. It was encouraging that leaders of several Christian communities were invited to Erdogan’s oath-taking ceremony where he appealed to Turks to put aside resentments and “be one”.
Refugees under pressure
As we approach World Refugee Day (20 June), it is disappointing to see growing hostility towards displaced people in parts of the Middle East. Anti-refugee rhetoric was prominent in the second round of presidential campaigning in Türkiye. In a bid to win over nationalist voters, Kılıçdaroğlu signed a deal with a far-right party and promised to return all refugees as soon as possible. It is perhaps understandable when Türkiye has hosted the world’s largest refugee population for nine years.
Meanwhile, national and international organisations reported that Lebanon has returned hundreds of refugees to Syria without giving them access to lawyers or UNHCR nor any opportunities to challenge their deportation. The returns come as a number of Lebanese municipalities introduced discriminatory measures such as curfews for refugees.
Despite this pressure, Syrian President Assad will not welcome a mass return, since surveys show that the majority of refugees oppose him. The regime has already detained some returnees, while others will go back to demolished homes and a country unable to sustain them. As the Arab League normalises relations with Damascus, we should pray that it will work with Syria to ensure the safe resettlement of refugees. Remember, too, the Lebanese churches that continue to support Syrian refugees in these anxious times.
Weakening democracy in Tunisia
In Tunisia, the jailing of former parliamentary speaker, Rached Ghannouchi, has done nothing to allay fears over the erosion of democracy in the country. Ghannouchi led the Ennahda party that governed Tunisia after the departure of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. It later formed a coalition government in 2014. Since President Kais Saied suspended parliament and dismissed Prime Minister Chechichi, Ghannouchi has been President Kais Saied’s most outspoken critic. After he assumed emergency powers in July 2021, Saied has introduced a new constitution that weakens the roles of parliament and the judiciary.
Saied was elected in a landslide victory in July 2019 when the public seemed keen to welcome a decisive, independent president after years of ineffective coalition government. However, neither consensus politics nor Saied’s leadership have delivered the economic recovery and employment opportunities for which Tunisians are desperate.
The head of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Tawadros ll, became the first non-Catholic church leader to address pilgrims in St Peter’s Square, Rome on 10 May. Tawadros, who represents the largest Christian community in the Middle East, was visiting the Vatican for the annual Coptic-Catholic Friendship Day. This meeting marked the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul Vl’s meeting with Pope Shenouda lll of Alexandria, which began a process of overcoming a schism between the churches dating back to AD 451. In a sign of growing unity, Pope Francis declared as saints the 21 Coptic Christians martyred by Islamic State terrorists in Libya in 2015 after they refused to deny their faith.
Below: On 4 June, in Mardin, southern Türkiye, clergy and Christian citizens of many denominations attended the reopening of the oldest church of the Armenian Catholic Archdiocese after years of renovations. SAT-7 TÜRK says “It was a very important reopening for the Christians in that region. In addition to the Christian citizens living in Mardin, the people from the surrounding cities showed great interest in the opening ceremony.”
The closest language to that spoken by Jesus now has a dedicated television channel. Al-Syriana launched in April in Baghdad, Iraq, broadcasting in Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic. Station director Jack Anwia said its goal is “to preserve the Syriac language…through entertainment”. Syriac continues to be taught at over 250 schools in Iraq and is spoken mostly in homes and during church services in Iraq and Syria. However, declining numbers of Christians in both countries due to conflict and wider use of Arabic among young people have threatened the language’s survival.
The school curriculum in Morocco, meanwhile, will increase the teaching of Tamazight, the indigenous language of Berber or Amazigh people, from the new school year. The government has announced a plan to make Tamazight an essential component of the primary curriculum. Historically, the language has been stigmatised, although it is spoken by an estimated 60 to 80 per cent of Moroccans and is an official language alongside Arabic. The country also plans to reduce the teaching of French, its former colonial language, and expand the teaching of English.
Lebanon this month welcomed the reopening of an iconic Beirut museum in one of the areas worst-hit by the August 2020 port explosion. The Sursock Museum is housed in a private villa built in Ottoman and Venetian style. After opening as a museum in the 1950s, it became one of the first museums in the MENA to house modern art. All the renovations have been funded by foreign organisations or by private individuals. Museum Director Karina El Helou told ArtNet, “We are a society of survivors. We are still in crisis. But what we have to learn today is to look towards the future and the museum symbolises that.”