The Middle Eastern Christian communities that follow the western calendar came together this Easter to remind themselves of Christ’s victory over death and the coming of God’s kingdom in a broken world. Continuing conflicts and rivalries showed it’s a message that is much needed in the region.
Thousands of Christians in Jerusalem processed down the Mount of Olives in the traditional Palm Sunday parade, accompanied by bagpipes and cries of “Hosanna!”. On Good Friday a more solemn procession wound its way along the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional site of Calvary and of the tomb where Jesus was laid. In the Christian town of Qaraqosh, Iraq, thousands thronged the streets in a massive Palm Sunday procession, many wearing traditional costume. In Aleppo, Syria, believers also declared their Christian faith in public.
Other states with a large Christian population, such as Lebanon, were prevented by pandemic restrictions from gathering in the usual way. There, in Beirut, Metropolitan Elias Audi, the country’s most senior Greek Orthodox bishop, contrasted the example of Jesus, who gave His life for others, to the actions of politicians who claim to protect Lebanon’s Christians but are unwilling to surrender anything. His words were seen as a stinging attack on Lebanese President Michel Aoun and his political party, the Free Patriotic Movement. Aoun, meanwhile, blamed the governor of Lebanon’s central bank and his political backers for preventing international auditors from investigating financial corruption in a state where the economy has fallen through the floor. International banks are reported to be closing their accounts with the Lebanon central bank, further hindering its ability to process foreign payments or pay for imports. The head of the IMF’s Middle East department has noted that without a new government willing to implement substantial reform, it is hard to see how the situation in Lebanon can improve.
Normally stable Jordan marked its one hundredth anniversary on Sunday (11 April) amid a very public rift within the royal family and government claims of a plot against the state. Jordan is usually seen as an oasis of calm in a region of flux and chaos. But last week’s news showed how surface appearances can hide complex power struggles. On 3 April former Crown Prince Hamzah released two videos to the BBC claiming he had been placed under house arrest. He said he had been told not to make any public statements after he attended meetings with tribal leaders where the government and King Abdullah, Hamzah’s half-brother, had been the target of criticism. Security officers arrested 16 senior officials on suspicion of association with a conspiracy to destabilise the country. In his two videos Prince Hamzah sharply criticised poor governance and corruption in the country.
As nations within the region rushed to express support for King Abdullah, within days Prince Hamzah signed a statement affirming his loyalty to the king. The half-brothers then appeared together again for the first time at last weekend’s commemorations of Jordan’s independence. Despite this return to the status quo, the incident reveals a discontent within Jordanian society over lack of government transparency and a worsening economy. There is also uncertainty over Jordan’s role in the region after it was marginalised in Arab relations with Israel by the Trump administration.
A blow to women’s safety
In Turkey, President Erdogan’s decision to pull Turkey out of the Istanbul Convention on Violence against Women triggered widespread concern. Domestic violence against women is prevalent in Turkey with regular news of women being killed by partners or disappointed suitors. Also controversial has been a demand by state prosecutors to ban the Kurdish nationalist People’s Democratic Party (HDP). The party won nearly 6 million votes in the last election, but prosecutors allege that it is controlled by the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Critics saw both moves as attempts to stem the falling popularity of President Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP); the first to appeal to Islamist voters and the second to shore up support amongst nationalists and the AKP’s far-right ally, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). With 3 million cases of COVID-19, high inflation, and declining investor confidence in the Turkish economy, the AKP is looking less sure-footed than it did in the first decade of the century.
In Iran, news of a huge increase in its nuclear enrichment capability caused concerns across Europe and the USA. The Biden administration is seeking ways to salvage something of the nuclear enrichment agreement from which President Trump withdrew. However, Iranian officials have been sceptical and have demanded an easing of sanctions first. Meanwhile, a key nuclear enrichment site in Iran experienced a major sabotage attack (11 April) that both Iran and the Israeli media attributed to Israeli cyber operations. The two countries are regularly in a “grey zone” conflict, targeting each other’s interests, infrastructure, vessels and key personnel. On the domestic front, parts of Iran are facing a fourth wave of COVID-19 after millions of Iranians travelled during the Persian new year holiday. The country’s main vaccination programme is not expected to begin until May.
Anti-government protests in Tunisia escalated again at the end of March. Hundreds of protestors in the southern city of Tataouine tried to storm a local government building demanding jobs. The country’s fledgling democracy is also bearing the strain of a president who is refusing to swear in a number of ministers approved by parliament and a prime minister who dismissed several cabinet ministers close to the president. Although Tunisia has seen more success than other Arab Spring countries in moving away from authoritarianism, it continues to experience huge youth unemployment.
No deal on the Nile
Important talks between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia over its giant hydropower dam on the Blue Nile have ended without a breakthrough. Ethiopia has reneged on a 2015 declaration signed by the three countries that would lead to detailed agreement over how the new dam is operated. Egypt and Sudan depend on the Nile’s waters and, without regulation of how the new dam is filled, Egypt fears water scarcity as soon as 2025.
In other respects, the future of Sudan is looking brighter. The country suffers from chronic underdevelopment but its removal from the US list of state sponsors of terror – after it paid compensation to US victims of al-Qaeda attacks – has opened the door to possible World Bank and IMF debt relief. A peace agreement signed between Sudan and a rebel movement in the Blue Nile and South Kordofan provinces was another step towards a comprehensive peace in the country and also the promotion of religious freedom. Both provinces are predominantly Christian and faced a bombing campaign under ousted President Al-Bashir. The new agreement makes a clear commitment to the separation of religion and state.