Passover, Easter and soon Ramadan will be marked in isolation in the Middle East this year. We look at how alarm over a string of man-made conflicts in the region has been overtaken by fear of a new enemy and how countries are responding.
You could be forgiven for forgetting the fear that circled the globe following the US strike against leading Iranian general Qasim Suleimani at the start of the year. Could this trigger a new world war, analysts worried.
Fresh fears were sparked by a new military build-up in Idlib, north-west Syria, when Turkey responded to the killing of Turkish soldiers by using drones to attack Russian and Syrian government forces.
Libya saw, and continues to see, fierce fighting over Tripoli, as Turkey swung its support behind the internationally recognised government and against Khalifa Haftar’s Emirati and Egyptian-backed forces. Currently, the balance of power has shifted in Tripoli’s favour with several coastal cities being recaptured from Haftar.
In Israel, we saw political chaos and questions over the rule of law as election results again failed to deliver a victory to any parliamentary coalition and the Justice Minister closed courts to combat coronavirus, thereby delaying the trial of Prime Minister Netanyahu on corruption charges.
In Lebanon, the economy and banking system continued to hang by a very thin thread, as the Hezbollah-backed government refused IMF restructuring and poverty levels grew.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia began oil price wars with Russia and the United States as they tried to outmanoeuvre each other over world oil markets.
But, while all these man-made conflicts and tensions held our attention, a virus that emerged in China began its deadly spread. By February, Covid-19, as it was now known, was advancing out of control in Italy and Iran, and it leapt across borders around the world in March and April.
In the Middle East, Iran has faced the highest number of infections, with official reports of more than 70,000 thousand infected, but popular concern that the actual numbers are far higher. Thankfully, more than half of those infected are reported to have recovered and infection rates are slowing down. One of the worst-hit cities has been Qom, a centre of pilgrimage and training for Iran’s Shia clerical leaders. The country continues to face tensions with the US. Washington continues to resist calls, including appeals by some former US and European officials, for it to lift economic sanctions during the pandemic.
The country seeing the second highest infection rate in the region is Turkey. At the start of March, Turkey had no confirmed cases, but numbers rocketed from 17 March onwards. Turkey is a major hub for airlines, with its national carrier flying to more cities in the world than any other airline. Nor does Turkey require visas from Iranians and residents of many Middle Eastern and Asian countries. More than 60,000 cases have been confirmed, although there has been a relatively low number of fatalities at 1,200. A national lockdown for the weekend was ordered at the last minute. Yet the country has also been able to send PPE kits to the UK and other NATO members, and to countries in the region, including Israel.
One measure to tackle the crisis in both Iran and Turkey has been to order the release of tens of thousands of prisoners. To prevent the spread of the virus in confinement, Iran temporarily freed 54,000 inmates. These included a number of Christians, jailed simply for practising their faith but on charges of “anti-state” activities. A few have been told they will not need to return to complete their sentences. Turkey took the decision this week to free 45,000 prisoners, although journalists and politicians arrested after the 2016 coup attempt will not be among them.
After Iran and Turkey, Israel has the highest rate of infections thus far with some 11,000 cases, but this is manageable. Social distancing orders required the Jewish Passover to be celebrated in isolation, and the usual massive influx of tourists for Easter was absent, both in Jerusalem and in Bethlehem in the Palestinian Territories. The economic impact on the West Bank is severe, and the difficulty of practising isolation in refugee camps there and in the densely populated, isolated Gaza strip is extremely worrying.
The rest of the region are seeing slower rates of infection at the moment, with many governments enforcing social isolation, and most reporting cases of around or fewer than 2,000 people infected.
Naturally, the greatest concerns are over what the effect the virus will have in conflict zones such as those in Syria, Libya and Yemen. Here, millions of people have almost no access to health services and there are hardly any ventilators or adequate intensive care units. There are serious threats of food shortages and the collapse of economic activity, and it is nearly impossible to practise social distancing or keep infected individuals in isolation.
It is seven years this month since Syrian Orthodox Archbishop Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim, a SAT-7 international board member, was abducted, together with the Greek Orthodox Metropolitan of Aleppo, Boulos al-Yazigi. Both had set out on a journey in eastern Syria to release another kidnapped priest. Tragically, neither leader has been seen since.
A sad echo of this incident came on 20 March from Turkey. The body of Şimuni Diril, an elderly Chaldean Christian who had been visiting Şırnak, near the border with Iraq, was found after she and her husband, Hurmüz, went missing in January. Her husband has not been found. Both are thought to have been kidnapped by militants who want to eliminate members of the area’s historic Christian community.
Happily, there was brighter news of four volunteers with the French Christian agency SOS Chrétiens d’Orient. The three French nationals and an Iraqi were released without ransom after they were abducted in Baghdad, Iraq on 20 January. Pray for the safety of believers in the region, who can be targeted by extremists or criminal gangs.
Easter in lockdown
Meanwhile, it is Easter. Those countries where churches follow the western church calendar celebrated Easter last weekend, while brothers and sisters in the Eastern Orthodox churches marked Palm Sunday and are now observing Holy Week. Amidst the suffering and disruption of normal life created by the pandemic, Christians across the Middle East and North Africa are reminded that even death is not the end; their lives are secure.
Churches, like other places of worship, are mostly closed or open only for private prayer. Mass Palm Sunday processions that usually take place in some Christian districts of countries such as Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon are on hold.
In a region where many Christians are socially isolated at any time, the interdenominational broadcasts by SAT-7 are playing a still more critical role in sharing biblical hope and uniting Christians.
Viewer engagement across the network’s Arabic, Persian and Turkish channels has risen sharply. Special programmes have addressed the coronavirus crisis with practical and spiritual content, as well as the reassurance that viewers, wherever they are, are not alone. Easter and other church broadcasts are being filmed, but without congregations, and senior church leaders from the region are using the network to air Easter messages.
At this challenging time, pray that SAT-7’s programmes will introduce seekers to the Son of God who Himself suffered and defeated death, and will enable believers to be a light set on a hill for all to see.