The latest twist in the ever-turning Middle East has been Turkey’s sudden engagement in the war against Islamic State and an unexpected renewal of conflict with Kurdish separatists. Iran’s proposed renewal of relations with the West has also put the cat among the pigeons.
The deal reached on Iran’s nuclear development programme continues to stir a hornet’s nest of reactions among groups in the US, the Middle East and Iran which see the deal as a dangerous sell-out. The Obama and Rouhani administrations have pursued multiple strategies to convince their country’s policy makers and public that this was the best option possible.
While it is, indeed, wise to de-escalate tensions over Iran’s nuclear enrichment ambitions and seek to normalise relations, this has implications for the dynamics of the region. Saudi Arabia and Israel remain firm critics of normalisation. The Arab Gulf states are deeply wary, with concerns ranging from fears of potential leaks from Iranian nuclear reactors to fears that a more influential Iran could mobilise marginalised Shia minorities and destabilise their countries.
In Syria, there is a new momentum in US-led coalition efforts to combat ISIS. The US and Turkey have finally reached a deal on how to proceed. Turkey agreed to allow the US to use its military bases for operations, and promised direct military support as well as involvement in training and equipping groups willing to fight ISIS. While the aerial campaigns began last week, the effectiveness of the new train and equip programme came into question when new graduates were kidnapped by the jihadist al-Nusra Front in Syria. However, analysts are cautiously optimistic that Turkey’s active presence will have a tangible impact.
More perplexing was the inauguration of an intense Turkish military response to the outlawed Kurdish militant group, the PKK. Although this is officially listed as a terror organisation in the UK, EU, NATO, UN and US, the PKK has enjoyed positive media coverage thanks to members of its associated organisations in Syria, who have been fighting against ISIS. Peace talks between the PKK and Turkey – which suspended a 30-year-long conflict – came to an abrupt halt. A two-year ceasefire ended when the PKK blamed the Turkish government for the ISIS suicide bombing in Suruc, alleging government support for ISIS as a means of preventing contiguous Kurdish regions in Syria. The PKK unleashed a series of attacks killing Turkish police officers and soldiers. This triggered a heavy response from the Turkish Air Force which bombed PKK camps in North Iraq.
Few people want Turkey to return to the violence of the 1990s – blighted by terrorist attacks, the destruction of hundreds of villages, and deaths of 40,000 people. Yet, the poisoned political atmosphere is making an immediate ceasefire difficult. Turkey’s clashes with the PKK also have serious ramifications for Iraq and Syria: it is vital for an enduring peace to be established.
Meanwhile, the opening of a second Suez canal in Egypt took place (6 August) with great fanfare and international support. The government aims to double the volume of shipping and more than double income by 2023, although detractors question whether the demand is there. Both the US and UK have focused on improving relations with Egypt and supporting economic growth and security as the country experiences disturbing numbers of terror incidents. Yet, troubling human rights abuses continue, with disappearances, extrajudicial killings and hundreds of people being given death penalties. Egypt is too large and too important to be allowed to fail but international actors walk a knife-edge in seeking to help and challenge Egypt in its all-round development.
One year after tens of thousands of Christians fled the advance of so-called Islamic State to Qaraqosh in Iraq, most remain displaced in refugee camps. There have been worrying reports, too, of Christians being forced from their homes and even killed in the Baghdad area. There have been some positive developments, however. In Erbil, Northern Iraq, the Chaldean Church announced plans to open the Catholic University of Erbil this autumn, with support from the Australian Catholic University. The university will be open to all, but will play a key role for dwindling Christian communities in the country.
In Syria, meanwhile, Christian-populated districts of the cities of Hama, Homs and Aleppo are experiencing fierce fighting and aerial bombardment as Syrian forces seek to retake areas from rebel Islamist groups. In the wake of Turkey’s renewed conflict with the Kurdish PKK, Syriac-Assyrian Christians in Syria also urged Turkey not to attack Kurdish groups which have been a bulwark against Islamic State. The risk is that Christians could be killed alongside Kurds in the aerial strikes and cross-border shelling. Please pray for the safety and health of Christians caught up in the various cross-fires, and for a cessation of conflicts.
In Sudan, two Christian Pastors, Yat Michael and Peter Yan Reith were acquitted of crimes that included spying and crimes against the state – offences which could have led to the death penalty. Thousands internationally had prayed for their release.
In Iran, the news of the nuclear enrichment deal has not lessened the restrictions on Christians. However, there was good news for two imprisoned believers. Pastor Farshid Fathi, jailed since 2010, was told he will be released in December. Elam ministries said it joined Farshid’s family “in praising God for this development, and for those who have made it possible.” Please pray for Farshid’s final months in prison and that the release will happen. Meanwhile, Alireza Seyyedian, (whom we mentioned in June), was freed on 27 July after serving three and a half years.
The work of SAT-7 TÜRK channel in Turkey continues to bear positive fruit. An interesting example has been the story of an ancient church building that went on sale for US $1million. SAT-7 TÜRK made the story public and raised serious questions as to how the vendor came to be the owner and how the derelict building should be protected. The report was subsequently covered widely in the Turkish media and local authorities began an investigation into the sale and into how the church can be restored.