As Türkiye and Syria begin to pick up the pieces after being rocked by earthquakes, there was a diplomatic breakthrough for Saudi Arabia and Iran and pardons for Iranian protesters
Thousands of aftershocks have continued five weeks after two powerful earthquakes struck Türkiye near its Syrian border. More than 48,000 people in Türkiye and 7,000 in Syria lost their lives and over 1.5 million people have been made homeless. It was encouraging to see countries from around the world sending aid and rescue workers to the stricken region, but recovery will take years and we should pray that the long-term needs are not forgotten. Türkiye faces a massive reconstruction task and the hidden challenge of grief and trauma felt by millions. Northern Syria, after sustaining the destruction and displacement of twelve years of war, has been plunged into further crisis.
After visiting the disaster zone in southeast Türkiye with a small team, SAT-7 TÜRK Executive Director Melih Ekener, said what they saw “was a greater horror than we could ever have expected”. Yet, amidst flattened towns and shocked residents, they saw local and international Christians working selflessly in the relief effort. “The places of worship were destroyed,” he said, “but the church community was more alive and stronger than ever.” Ekener was careful not to minimise the region’s suffering, though, mentioning the intense emotions expressed by residents and SAT-7’s commitment to them through programmes that will continue to offer spiritual, psychological and practical support.
Churches and other first responders in Syria have been equally active, although aid was delayed both by the Damascus government and by international sanctions. Some of these have been lifted temporarily to enable the flow of humanitarian assistance. Reconstruction in Syria seems far off, however. The government has been slow to rebuild in areas it now controls and western sanctions prevent international assistance for rebuilding. Serious health and security problems face the population in rebel areas, with 2.7 million people living in a small region, medical services depleted by government bombing, and multiple families living in collective shelters.
Uptick in diplomacy
One side effect of the disaster was some new diplomatic moves. It was notable that the foreign minister of Egypt, for example, had meetings both in Damascus with President Assad and in Türkiye with the Foreign Minister. In Türkiye, the Egyptian diplomat said his country wants to fast-track the normalization of relations after ten years of tensions over a variety of issues.
A three-month national emergency is now in place in Türkiye but plans for pivotal presidential and parliamentary elections are still set to go ahead in May. An alliance of six main opposition parties has come together in attempt to defeat President Erdogan and his AKP party. Kemal Kiliçdaroglu, the leader of Turkey’s Republican People’s Party (CHP), which won back several cities from the AKP in 2019, has been chosen as his main challenger.
In a significant move, regional adversaries and influencers, Saudi Arabia and Iran have agreed to resume diplomatic ties seven years after severing them. Relations were cut in 2016 after Riyadh executed a Saudi Shiite cleric and demonstrators burned down the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Hosted by Iraq, China mediated the agreement which commentators think may offer Saudi Arabia’s development and foreign investment goals some protection from Iranian proxies and may move forward a peace plan for Yemen. There, Iran has backed the Houthi rebels against the Saudi approved government. Iran, still facing US sanctions, will welcome this easing of relations, while Israel, ever concerned about Iran, will have concerns.
In Tehran, the head of the judiciary this week announced that Ayatollah Khameini has pardoned 22,000 people it arrested during the anti-government protests following the death of Mahsa Amini. So far there have been no independent reports of their release, however. Commentators said that acknowledgement of the scale of arrests indicates that the Iranian theocracy may now feel it has overcome one of the biggest popular challenges to its rule since the 1979 revolution. There was fresh anger, however, over mysterious poisonings of thousands of school girls in around 200 schools. Dozens of students have been hospitalized with respiratory conditions since the first cases last November. Last weekend, Tehran announced that over a hundred suspects believed to be behind the poisonings have been arrested nationwide.
Meanwhile, Christians welcomed Iran’s release of five imprisoned believers. They had been serving sentences of up to ten years for their Christian faith and activities. Among them was Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani who in 2010 faced a death sentence for apostasy that was eventually changed to a custodial sentence following international pressure. On his release he sent an amazing letter to campaign organization Article 18, voicing his thanks to God for his release and for the privilege of suffering for Christ.
It is striking that a prominent Shia cleric in Iran, this month spoke of his sense of responsibility to bring back to Islam young people who are turning to Christianity. Ayatollah Alavi Borujerdi noted how young Iranians have “become strangers” to Shia Islam and are becoming Christians, Zoroastrians and “even Buddhists”. His admission of the failure of Shia clerics to connect with them contrasted with Tehran’s normal response of blaming foreign influence. A 2020 survey indicated that less than a third of Iranians now identify as Shiites.
Persecution of Copts
Religious persecution comes in various forms in the region. Egypt’s foreign ministry last month announced that it had successfully negotiated the release of six Egyptian Christians abducted in Libya on 6 Feb. The Coptic Christians from Sohag governorate in southern Egypt were held with captives of many nationalities. Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) said the men reportedly suffered harsher treatment once their captors learned that they were Christians, including beatings and denial of food. The charity called on the Libyan authorities to do “far more to discourage abductions and secure the release of all who are still in captivity, regardless of their ethnicity, religion or belief”.
Egypt, meanwhile, announced death sentences for four Islamic terrorists convicted of attacks on two buses carrying Coptic Christian pilgrims to monasteries in May 2017 and November 2018. Some 35 were killed and 40 injured as the buses were ambushed and shot at in the desert 220 km south of Cairo. To be carried out, the death sentences will now have to be approved by Egypt’s Grand Mufti, the country’s most senior religious official.
Divisions and violence
Ramadan and Passover will overlap this year prompting concerns at a time of escalating violence in the Holy Land. After a series of shootings of Israeli civilians and large-scale Israeli raids that have left Palestinian fighters and civilians dead, violence reached a new level in the Palestinian town of Huwwara. Two Jewish settlers were shot dead and hundreds of armed settlers attacked villagers in revenge, setting fire to homes and businesses and leaving one dead and 350 injured. This came just after Israeli and Palestinian officials met in Jordan for rare talks mediated by Egypt and the USA aimed at preventing more violence. The attack and a statement by far-right finance minister Bezalel Smotrich that “Huwwara should be wiped out” prompted international condemnation and a retraction by Smotrich.
Divisions in Israeli society have also been on display in ten weeks of mass demonstrations against the government’s plans to reduce the independence of the judiciary. Demonstrators believe the changes will weaken Israel’s democratic institutions and concentrate power in the government.
Almost 20 years after US-led forces invaded Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein, Iraqi President, Abdul Latif Rashid last week urged the world to know that it is now at peace and intent on rebuilding economic life and serving all its different communities. Iraq continues to have major challenges, including poor infrastructure, climate change, the presence of Iran-backed militias and of Islamic State cells in rural areas, and of widespread corruption that Rashid said he was determined to root out. Since 2003, Iraq’s historic Christian population is also believed to have fallen from 1.4 million to less than 250,000. Please pray for those who remain as a faithful Christian witness in the land, and for those who live as refugees, often without any right to work in neighbouring countries.
Learning from Yemen’s forgotten Christian past
Once home to flourishing and influential Christian communities, today only a few thousand believers live in Yemen. Most only meet each other in secret. But a new SAT-7 series, We Are the Arabs, uncovers the surprising ancient Christian heritage of this land. It does so to draw valuable lessons on how Arab Christians today, living as a minority, can dialogue with the more dominant religious voices in their countries. Read the story here