The Holy Land is in the midst of one of the most deadly conflicts for civilians since 1948. The crisis began at dawn on 7 October when over a thousand Hamas fighters crossed from Gaza into southern Israel under cover of rocket fire. killed civilians and soldiers including 250 people at a music festival, and took 199 Israelis hostage, including children and peace activists.
Israeli officials described the attack as the country’s “9/11 moment” and, vowing to “destroy Hamas”, authorised the most extensive bombardment of the Gaza strip in its history. Israel cut supplies of electricity, water and food supplies to the coastal enclave and gave one half of Gaza’s 2.2 million residents living in the north 24 hours to move to the south of the strip for safety.
On Tuesday night, an explosion at a hospital in Gaza killed hundreds of people and sparked mass protests across the Arab world. Hamas, the Palestinians and other countries have blamed Israel for the explosion, whilst the Israeli military blames the blast on a misfired Islamic Jihad rocket. An Israeli ground, air and sea invasion appears to be imminent. In the first six days of fighting some 1,300 people living in Israel and around 3,000 living in Gaza had been killed.
Meanwhile, many in the region are keeping a watchful eye on how Hezbollah – the Iran-backed political and military group within Lebanon – will react. In the Palestinian West Bank, towns have been locked down for a week, with food and fuel running low.
Gaza’s tiny Christian community of around 1,100 believers has been seeking shelter from the aerial bombardments like everyone else. Earlier last week the director of Gaza’s only Christian hospital, based in Gaza City, had described the situation as “severely critical”. However, the implication of Thursday’s evacuation order is that it will need to cease functioning. In a joint statement last week, Jerusalem Patriarchs and heads of major churches in the Holy Land condemned all violence against civilians and called for an immediate cessation of hostilities. They implored leaders to “seek lasting solutions that promote justice, peace, and reconciliation”.
Hamas’ shock assault came after 16 years of Israeli blockade on Gaza. As well as Hamas’ central aim of reclaiming Palestine, commentators believe the attack was also prompted by recent factors. Most important has been steps taken towards normalising Israeli relations with Saudi Arabia as the kingdom seeks trade agreements and US support in developing a civilian nuclear programme.
Another major development occurred on the fringe of the MENA region. On 19 September Azerbaijan launched an attack on the Armenian-populated enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Outgunned enclave forces capitulated after 24 hours and officials said the breakaway state would be dissolved by the end of the year. This triggered a mass exodus of over 100,000 residents to Armenia itself. Azerbaijan has the support of its close ally, Türkiye, while diaspora Armenians are spread across a wide region including Iran, Lebanon, and Türkiye.
The latest violence followed two months of bitter fighting in 2020. At that time, Azerbaijan regained territory lost previously in a six-year war (1988-1994) during the collapse of the Soviet Union, when both Azerbaijan and Armenia gained independence.
The new crisis occurred after Azerbaijan imposed a nine-month blockade of the enclave’s only food and supply corridor with Armenia. Despite Azerbaijan’s promises to uphold “the equality of rights and freedoms” of all, almost every ethnic Armenian has fled. Both sides have committed atrocities in the past and there is deep hostility on nationalistic and religious grounds between Christian Armenians and Azeri Muslims.
Tragically, the people of Afghanistan, already enduring harsh repression under the Taliban, are suffering more trauma after a series of serious earthquakes began striking Herat province in the west of the country on 7 October. The region is sparsely populated but at least two thousand people in villages turned to rubble have been killed. It is believed that 90 per cent were women and children.
Neighbouring Iran raised growing concern over its nuclear development when it withdrew recognition of several of the most experienced inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the body that monitors Iran’s programme. The UK, France, Germany and the US jointly urged Iran to reverse the decision so that monitors could be sure that Iran’s advancing nuclear programme is exclusively peaceful.
One year after the death of Mahsa Amini in Iranian custody after allegedly improperly wearing the headscarf, Iran’s parliament has increased the penalty for women who continue to defy hijab and other dress rules. The new law imposes a maximum ten-year jail sentence and will give fresh power to religious police who try to impose it on the streets.
As if in rebuke to this, the Norwegian Nobel Committee this month awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Iranian women’s and human rights activist Narges Mohammadi. The 51-year-old is currently serving a ten-year jail term in Tehran’s Evin prison for “spreading propaganda”. Ms Mohammadi has campaigned for the end of Iran’s regularly used death penalty. Last year she detailed increased abuses against women arrested in the protests for women’s equality. The Nobel Committee called for Ms Mohammadi’s release from prison and said they were awarding the prize for her “fight against the oppression of women in Iran and her fight to promote human rights and freedom for all”.
Tragedy in Qaraqosh
Iraq’s dwindling Christian community has been mourning this month after wedding celebrations turned into a blazing inferno. An estimated 1,000 people were attending the event in Qaraqosh, Nineveh governorate, when flares were lit as the bride and groom danced. Sparks reportedly ignited flammable ceiling materials and fire engulfed the building. Over 100 guests died and more than 70 were injured. Rivan, the groom, told Rudaw news that his 18-year-old bride had lost nine family members. They were unsure how they could continue to live in Qaraqosh, although, he said “thankfully the people are all by our side”. Authorities blamed the fire on building materials in violation of safety regulations.
Egyptians learnt this month that they will have presidential elections in December, months earlier than expected. President el-Sisi has declared his candidacy with promises to deliver continued stability. Whether he will face much opposition is uncertain: dissident politicians are experiencing considerable pressure, with one party leader already having been arrested.
Away from the political fray, several thousand Egyptian Christians attended the Count It Right Festival, held in Wadi Natroun by Cairo’s influential Kasr El-Dobara Evangelical Church. The family event, televised by SAT-7, includes sports, seminars, worship and preaching events, drawing believers from across the country.
Egypt also saw the death last week of a remarkable Coptic Christian priest. Father Samaan Ibrahim (age 80) was a dynamic and inspirational figure who began ministry in 1974 among Cairo’s 20,000 Christian rubbish collectors in a district known as the “garbage village”. With the support of other clergy and civil society groups he transformed a squalid area, rife with social problems, into a thriving community. A sprawling complex of cave churches, known as the Monastery of St Samaan the Tanner, or simply “the Cave Church”, became its centre and regularly hosted thousands of worshippers.
A century old
The Republic of Türkiye will mark its first century on 29 October. It emerged after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire during World War 1 under the firm hand and vision of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. In its first century, the republic has been through volatile times with two military coups, an unstable government in the 90s, and the spectacular rise to power of (now) President Erdoğan’s Islamist AK (Justice and Development) Party. Türkiye’s politics remain strongly nationalist but continue to be divided between secular and religious voters. Within this mix, Christians often face discrimination and have sometimes encountered hate speech or violence.
In this context, it was encouraging this month to see the opening on Sunday 8 October of the first completely new church in the republic’s history. The St Ephrem Syriac Ancient Orthodox Church in Istanbul has taken ten years to construct since the foundation stone was laid by the President. It has space for 750 worshippers, plus a meeting hall, accommodation and parking. Sait Susin, President of the Syriac Kadim Foundation which represents the church, said, “We are very excited, very happy, very joyful. It is a good message for our country… I hope that the prayers to be made here will be instrumental in increasing the unity and solidarity of our country.”
Türkiye continues a slow recovery from its deadliest earthquake in modern times earlier this year. SAT-7 TÜRK continues to offer support to those affected through our programming and our activity to unite churches across the country. Pray for us as we continue in this important work.