Protests in Iran have entered a fourth week. The country is still raging over the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini who was detained for incorrectly wearing the hijab. Since then, young women who courageously removed and set fire to their headscarves have inspired protests in many parts of the country, uniting people of diverse religious, ethnic and cultural backgrounds in condemnation of police and regime brutality. Over 150 demonstrators have been killed and thousands arrested.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini blamed Israel and the West for instigating the protests. But observers see them as a natural result of over 40 years of repression. Mahsa was a Kurdish Iranian, whose real name, Jhina, could not even be included on her birth certificate where only Persian and some Islamic names are permitted. Thus, her death had an additional layer for Kurds who face discrimination, and for Kurdish militants who often clash with the Iranian military.
Some Christians are reported to be taking part in protests inside Iran as well as supporting them vocally and prayerfully outside. Iranian Christian ministry 222 reported that it has sent doctors and nurses to attend the wounded and that it is offering support to families who have lost loved ones. It is too soon to see where these protests will lead but they highlight deep grievances in the country and the impossibility of the regime maintaining its hold indefinitely.
In better news, the president of Türkiye and prime minister of Armenia have met in person for the first time since both countries decided to normalise relations a year ago. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev was also present at the meeting, which took place less than a month after two days of cross-border fire between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the Karabakh region. In 2020, Türkiye had backed Azerbaijan in six weeks of heavy fighting.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have stunned the US government by deciding to reduce rather than increase oil production, despite a request made by US President Joe Biden on his visit to Riyadh in July. Some US politicians are calling for US military support to the two states to be downgraded. Oil-rich Gulf states have been poised to benefit from energy shortages brought on by the Ukraine war and have become reluctant to follow US-led sanctions and reactions. It is a sign of the changing dynamics in the Middle East: a declining US presence and influence; increasing Chinese and Russian engagement; and countries intent on pursuing more independent policies.
Sadly, a new crisis is awaiting Syria and Lebanon following an outbreak of cholera while both countries are experiencing a crisis in healthcare and millions of displaced people are living in dire conditions. Lebanese health officials have pointed out that the country does not have cholera vaccine stocks. Meanwhile, Lebanese banks have shut their doors again and are only serving customers via ATMs or remotely after a series of incidents in which desperate customers tried to hold up banks to access their own money.
More positively, a promising deal between Israel and Lebanon to finalise their maritime boundaries has been agreed, allowing the possibility of exploration of an offshore gas field that straddles their borders. This could relieve tensions between two uneasy neighbours that currently have no formal diplomatic relations.
Christian leaders in Jerusalem, meanwhile, thanked King Abdullah ll of Jordan for his defense of Christians at the 77th UN General Assembly. Jordan is legally recognised as the custodian of Christian and Muslim sites in Jerusalem and the king was responding to complaints that settler groups are seeking to displace Christians in the city. “Christianity is vital to the past and present of our region and the Holy Land,” the king told delegates. “It must remain an integral part of our future.”
Jordan also played host this month to a meeting of the Middle East and North Africa Evangelical National Councils. This branch of the World Evangelical Alliance was formed just four years ago. Delegates reported mixed news, according to Religion News Service. Egypt’s estimated three million evangelicals are benefiting from reforms to the recognition of church buildings and the Evangelical Fellowship of Egypt is helping about 1,500 churches make adjustments to receive recognition.
In Iraqi Kurdistan there are now 14 churches for Kurdish Christians thanks to former Iraqi President Talabani’s recognition of minority faiths. However, the 5,000-member Evangelical Church Union in Iraq reported that the Baghdad government has refused to recognise its congregations and eight in Baghdad are threatened with closure. Nevertheless, the overall picture from the meeting was of a growing movement that is growing in organisational unity.
Christians also gathered in Jordan for a Lausanne/World Evangelical Alliance conference on creation care and the Gospel. Several SAT-7 staff attended to learn and make connections as the network plans productions that will address this issue in a region that is experiencing serious environmental impacts of climate change.
News from parts of North Africa is concerning. The Sudan-focused human rights group Waging Peace reports that the military has ignored the guarantees of freedom of religion and equality for Christians made by the transitional government that it removed one year ago. Security agents are again raiding churches and arresting converts. A Darfur pastor and his children died in mysterious circumstances after visits from security forces, and several churches have been damaged or destroyed in arson attacks. Please pray for believers in Sudan and ask that the international community will use its leverage to call for accountable civilian rule.
The Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom or Religion or Belief, Fiona Bruce MP, this week sounded the alarm for Algeria. After visiting Christians and other members of minority faiths a week ago, she told a Coptic new year (Nayrouz) service in Westminster that all groups are experiencing restrictions. She said over 30 Evangelical Protestant churches had been closed and many pastors face court proceedings. “The pressure is real,” Ms Bruce said. “Pray that there will be a change of approach by the authorities.”
Another example was that Caritas, a confederation of Catholic aid and development organisations active in Algeria since the country’s independence, announced that it has been ordered to close This is apparently because of new restrictions imposed on foreign and multinational NGOs.
In Libya, Middle East Concern reports that a young man who came to Christ from Islam four years ago has been arrested by militias who have now sentenced him to death. Also in Libya, the Union Church in Tripoli, along with four multi-national congregations who use the building, are facing an eviction order from the place of worship they have used for some 50 years. The owners of the land claim the use of the building is counter to their Islamic faith.
There are brighter developments on the economic front for Tunisia and Egypt. Both countries seem to have reached the final stages of a deal to borrow from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Both have faced serious economic challenges, deepened further by rising energy costs and shortages of basic commodities. The two governments are struggling to pay for and subsidise key imports, from basic food products to car parts. Tunisia now has its highest inflation rate in 30 years.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration is to cut 10 per cent of its annual $300 million support for the Egyptian military amid concerns over Egypt’s human rights violations. At the end of this month Egypt is to begin a “national dialogue” with opposition voices over domestic challenges, although observers questioned how serious the government is about implementing political reforms. The nation is also preparing to host the next UN global summit on climate change, COP27, at Sharm el-Sheikh.
News that Saudi Arabia has won the bid to host the 2029 Asian Winter Games raised concerns for the environmental organisation Greenpeace. Although the event will be held in the Sarawat mountains that does have snowfall, campaigners questioned the amount of energy required to generate the additional snow needed for the state’s first outdoor ski resort and to supply a new man-made lake. The resort is part of Neom, a new flagship city Saudi Arabia is building.