The whirlwind that is the Middle East never ends. Taking centre stage in this month’s developments have been Yemen, Iran and Tunisia.
The most promising development – albeit still unclear – has been a provisional agreement reached with Iran over its nuclear enrichment. While the details are yet to be made public or clearly outlined, a consensus on the broad guidelines seems to have been reached. For Iran, this would mean the gradual lifting of sanctions, greater financial freedom and integration into global banking systems, and the ability to export and import. For the US and European Union countries, agreement would de-escalate a major tension in the region and offer potential leverage on the most pressing political conflicts in Iraq, Syria and now Yemen. The agreement has its critics, however. Israel is the chief opponent and sees no solution to this tension without Iran surrendering almost all its nuclear enrichment capacity.
The negotiations with Iran have also opened rifts between the USA and Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Both Middle East countries see Iranian competition in the region as a threat, with Saudi Arabia and Iran locked into a struggle for influence in Yemen and the region. Last month Saudi and Egypt began joint military action against Houthi forces in Yemen which have taken control of much of the capital and government structures. The Houthis belong to a Shia Islam sect and, despite denials, are understood to be receiving military aid from Iran.
Aerial bombing campaigns of Yemen by Saudi forces continue and Egypt has openly called for the creation of a new Arab military force across the region. Recently, we have also seen Egypt carry out aerial bombings and military action in Libya in support of the groups it wants to see in power there. Iran also came under fire from Turkish President Erdogan for seeking hegemony in the region, although this did not prevent the signing of some major business deals. Iran, in return, condemned everyone else for interfering in Yemen and not allowing the Yemeni people to decide their own fate. While the geopolitical fist fights over Yemen continue, the toll of civilian suffering there and in Libya grows, as both countries are now de facto failed states.
In Iraq, campaigns against ISIS continue with Shiite and Iraqi forces reclaiming towns including Tikrit, and Kurdish groups continuing to protect their zones. The US declared its support for a campaign to retake Iraq’s second city of Mosul this Spring, though Iraqi forces seemed more intent on recapturing towns in Anbar Province. The US and its allies, including Turkey, are now training Syrian and Iraqi forces to combat ISIS. Yet, without any political consensus on the futures of Iraq or Syria, these limited military responses will fail to solve the long-term problems.
In Tunisia, the 17 March attack on the Bardo museum, killing almost 20 foreign tourists, shocked the country and once again highlighted the growing risk of terrorism here and across the region. Tunisia remains the country providing the largest number of foreign jihadis fighting for ISIS and other groups in Syria.
In an interview for SAT-7’s Forbidden programme last month, the Archbishop of Canterbury said in all these conflicts, “It is always the poor who suffer the most”.
Ask God to turn the hearts of the powerful to seek peace, justice and prosperity for their people through diplomacy rather than destructive ways. Pray against sectarianism and misinformation and ask that truth and compassion will move nations to defend the weak and seek the common good.
The start of April is a special Easter season for the Church as the Western and Eastern Christian festivals follow a week apart. In parts of the MENA region, the Church undergoes its own Golgotha. Numerous articles in the international media ring alarm bells warning of the demise of Christianity in the Middle East.
This April will also give a reminder of the deep roots of Christian suffering in this region. Both Armenians and Syriac Christians remember the 100th anniversary of the massacres they faced during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Fierce debate over whether this should could be classified as genocide continues in Turkey but the reality of an estimated 1.5 million Christians losing their lives and others their homeland is beyond dispute. It is some of the same Syriac and Armenian Christians who fled Turkey for Syria and Iraq who are now being displaced in these lands.
In response, we are also seeing militias of Assyrian Christians emerging in Syria and Iraq. Others are joining Kurdish or Shiite groups to protect their lands against ISIS while a third group looks to the international community to provide greater protection. Observers warn that forming Christian militias risks provoking even greater aggression from jihadists.
Praise God for movements of intercession and fresh commitment to follow Christ among MENA believers. Pray that the witness of those who forgive their enemies may impact both moderates and extremists and bring them to the path of peace and reconciliation. Seek wisdom and safety for Christians whose lives are threatened.