For the Middle East, 2015 has been another year of head-spinning complexities. In the conflicts and humanitarian crises, Christians have sometimes been the first to be attacked, but have often given the lead in responding to need. This month’s Briefing recaps the year that was. In January we look to see what 2016 might bring.
In 2014, despite growing concerns over so-called Islamic State (IS), there were still faint hopes for a ceasefire in Syria. Some foresaw a fall in asylum seekers from the country when the conflict reached saturation point and battle fatigue set in. Tragically, events have been very different. The country’s destruction continued. Hundreds of thousands more Syrians fled their homes, triggering the largest global refugee crisis since World War II. President Assad continued his regime’s brutal and indiscriminate bombings. Although his forces faltered through declining numbers of soldiers, support from Hezbollah, Iran and Russia ensured his survival. Syrian opposition groups faced attacks from these as well as from IS.
In 2015, the IS threat beyond Syria became a reality. IS-linked suicide bombers in Ankara, Beirut, Paris and Sharm Al Sheikh, showed the deadly consequences of international failures to contain the group when it emerged in 2013 and early 2014. However, increased border controls and intelligence sharing reduced the number of foreign fighters joining it. Airstrikes led by the US damaged IS capacity and ground advances by Kurdish forces in parts of Northern Syria and Iraq pushed IS back in areas like Sinjar.
Syria became the focus for all sorts of geopolitical tensions. Russia surprised everyone by intervening directly with jets and soldiers on behalf of Assad under the pretext of fighting ISIS. Turkey also joined the conflict, allowing the US a military base from which to mount air strikes in Syria. Turkey launched attacks on IS but drew criticism for bombing some Kurdish forces it regards as an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Turkey and Russia are now at loggerheads after Turkey downed a Russian fighter jet for invading its air space. Meanwhile, tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia showed themselves once again in Syria and Yemen.
Saudi Arabia’s determination to repulse the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen has led to nine months of war and a humanitarian catastrophe. Like Libya, where IS recently sought to establish their own governorate, Yemen is becoming a failed state, with significant long-term implications. Saudi also came under criticism as the kingdom’s executions reached a 20-year high of 175 people, and faced allegations that its support for intolerant Wahhabi Islam is a root cause of extreme Jihadists like IS.
In Egypt, President Sisi consolidated his power by clamping down further on the Muslim Brotherhood and on secular opponents. The opening of the second lane of the Suez Canal, a major prestige project, aimed to increase income and national solidarity. However, the destruction of the Russian passenger plane returning from the Sharm El Sheikh holiday resort threatens disaster for the country’s vital holiday economy.
In Israel and Palestine, fears over a new intifada were not realised, but a wave of stabbings and car ramming by individual Palestinians resulted in numbers of Jewish deaths and Palestinians being shot by security forces. Israelis alleged incitement by Palestinian leaders, while Palestinians blamed the violence on frustration at the expansion of settlements and Israeli occupation.
Iran made a come-back to the international fold in 2015 after a breakthrough on nuclear enrichment tensions. Iran’s direct engagement in crisis talks with Syria was also seen as a positive step forward. Despite this, Iran continued its relentless crackdown on dissent, and continued to advance its geopolitical aims across the region.
In neighbouring Turkey, President Erdogan continued to strengthen his position. After disaffection prompted the first big fall in the AKP vote in 12 years this summer, November elections returned their parliamentary majority. Behind this lay a summer of spiralling violence. The IS bombing of a Kurdish dominated-rally led to the PKK killing of three Turkish police officers followed by a heavy Turkish military response against PKK camps in Iraq and South East Turkey. The conflict continued to escalate and was seen as a key factor in the increased vote for Erdogan’s AKP and strong leadership.
The conflicts in Syria and Iraq continued to have a major impact upon the region’s Christians. Many of those driven by IS from their homelands in Iraq have now spent over 15 months in displacement centres in Iraqi Kurdistan. Others have fled abroad. Some church leaders report that Jihadist forces including the al-Nusra Front, Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, as well as IS, are threatening Christians with conversion, Jizya tax or death. Reports highlighted the continuing erosion of the Christian population in the region. In Iraq, for example, a community of one million has shrunk to around 275,000.
At the same time, the response of numbers of Christian churches and NGOs to the crisis in Syria and Iraq has been truly inspiring. Many are demonstrating practical compassion, both for fellow believers and those of other faiths. SAT-7 KIDS paid a return visit to Christian refugees in the Mar Elias church compound in Erbil, Northern Iraq, where wooden cabins have replaced tents, children have returned to school and conditions for the hundreds of families there have improved immensely. Hundreds of refugee Christian families are also being cared for in another church compound in Jordan. In Lebanon, meanwhile, a country which has the highest per capita number of refugees, churches have sought to house Christians away from camps in local accommodation. A number of churches also have very active compassion ministries, providing food, clothing and medical aid, hospitality and schooling to Syrian refugees from Muslim backgrounds.
As a result of the practical love shown, many non-Christian refugees are attending churches that have cared for them and growing numbers are coming to believe in Jesus as “more than a prophet”. In a packed worship service in Lebanon last month, a SAT-7 UK staff member heard that some 80 per cent of the 200 attending were non-Christians from Syria. Here, pastorally sensitive preaching applied the Bible directly to the lives of displaced people who have left loved ones behind, lost everything and face an uphill struggle to survive. In Iraq, too, a colleague reported visiting two small churches – one hosting 16 families in its church hall and another taking aid to around 120 Yazidi families. Some of these have been through the worst ordeals as escaped captives and sex slaves to IS.
Earlier in the year, a profound message of forgiveness issued by Egyptian Christians to those who murdered their brethren in Libya grabbled world attention with many media outlets covering it. Developments in the region seem to be leading many to question their inherited faith, and there is an openness to explore what others believe. At such times, the region’s Christians have a unique opportunity to speak of a God of love and compassion.
Large, televised Christian events have been another way in which this has been done. The Count it Right and One Thing gatherings in Egypt and an evangelistic campaign in Lebanon, supported by Beirut-wide billboard advertising and media publicity in November gave many the chance to hear the Christian message.
A breakthrough event this year was the launch of SAT-7’s Turkish language channel on the official state satellite platform. This has united Christians from Turkey’s diverse range of denominations and ethnic backgrounds and given them a stronger voice with which to educate Turkish believers in their faith and explain and apply it to others. Nevertheless, this was not without opposition: a number of death threats were issued to church figures by IS-related groups in the country.
Overall, 2015 saw the future of Middle Eastern Christianity being covered by international media more widely and urgently than before. Despite the declining Christian presence in parts of the region, the head of one of the largest Christian NGOs in Iraq told us he believes the Christian voice will continue to shine and influence his society. “Numbers are not the only measurement”, Fr Emmanuel Youkhana said, “but the willingness to live your call”.