As we approach the end of 2018, we take our annual look back over the last twelve months. Two themes stand out: each year since the 2011 Middle East uprisings has seen new shifts of power and a crumbling of the old order, and every year the faithfulness of the region’s Church continued to inspire.
One of the most striking shifts has been the shaking of the relative stability of Saudi Arabia. For several decades, one could count on settled power structures that enabled a wide network of interests and powerful individuals to hold together under the leadership of the King – just as vast fortunes flowed to the large royal family from oil revenues. Now the kingdom is not only seeing the approaching end to its financial bonanza, but the new Crown Prince is shaking the old order of balanced power and interests. Centring power on himself, he has aggressively pushed Saudi policies at home and in the region beyond their usual, considered and measured limits. From the Yemen war, to splitting the Gulf Cooperation Council with the confrontation with Qatar, and now the brutal murder of a Saudi dissident journalist, he has pursued forceful policies, careless of outcomes. The result has been to damage the country’s reputation, weaken his own position, and unnerve allies.
Meanwhile Saudi’s chief rival for influence in the region, Iran, took centre-stage in the complex fault lines that fracture the Middle East. In fact, today, most of the Middle East could be read as three blocks: the “combat-Iran” block (USA, Israel, Egypt, Saudi), the “accommodate Iran” block (Turkey, Qatar, Russia, EU), and the “support Iran” block (Syria, Hezbollah, and dependent groups across the region). Yet, at home, the regime faced more public protests and serious questions over whether it should spend so much of its wealth in Syria while large swathes of its population face poverty. With new sanctions brought in by the Trump administration, the hardships faced by the population will deepen. But Iran has been here before: the regime has experience in weathering these external pressures while maintaining its regional influence and domestic power regardless. What does seem to be worrying Iran on a religious level, however, is the continuing desertion of Islam by many Iranians. The runup to Christmas has already seen almost 150 arrests of Christians in cities across the country.
This year, Turkey completed the move to a presidential system with few checks to presidential power. Following the 2016 coup attempt, the country was in a state of emergency for two years with thousands losing jobs and assets on the basis of unproven allegations, and thousands more detained. The case of American pastor Andrew Brunson attracted phenomenal media attention, and we were thrilled to see him return home. But the process left many worrying about what comes next for Christians in Turkey amid increasingly strained ties with both the US and Europe.
In Egypt, a familiar pattern continued. The strong, army-backed state promised stability, prosperity and peace despite the presence of Islamist terrorists, primarily in the Sinai. In fact, ruthless attacks continued on Egyptian security forces and Christians suffered another bus ambush in which seven monastery visitors were killed and many others injured. Police protection reduced the number of church attacks but security concerns prevented some large events going ahead. While the IMF praised GDP growth and a strong fall in the budget deficit, measures taken to achieve this hit the pockets of ordinary Egyptians hard. Floating the Egyptian pound, for example, resulted in a 50 per cent fall in value and purchasing power. The optimism of the first part of 2011, when President Mubarak, was ousted feels a distant memory.
In Syria, so-called Islamic State (IS) lost almost 90 per cent of its territory and found itself confined to the lower Euphrates valley. Yet, the tensions between three major groups continued to strain both the fight against IS and the situation of towns and cities not under the control of the Assad government. Turkey and Russia found themselves trying to work out how to remove some Islamist groups from Idlib. Meanwhile, Turkey and the USA tried to work out how to push Kurdish militias belonging to the PYD/YPG to the east of the Euphrates to ease Turkey’s concern over their links to the PKK organisation which has been fighting against Turkey for the last 40 years. Meanwhile, Israel struck targets in Syria to prevent weapons from reaching Iranian proxies on its borders and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Against this bleak backdrop, SAT-7 partners, Family of Jesus, visited churches in Syria and found them overflowing with new believers.
In Yemen, the humanitarian crisis deteriorated further. In October, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said that 10,000 suspected cases a week of cholera are being reported and, a month later, Save the Children estimated that 85,000 children have died of starvation. The Saudi and UAE-led coalition faced condemnation for war tactics that deny food imports and medical care, leading some countries to suspend arms sales. The Houthis rebels were also fiercely criticised for impeding aid distribution and for their own human rights abuses. As the end of another year approaches, no clear sight is ahead for the war.
More hopeful signs emerged in Iraq this year. The May election of a new political alliance pointed to increasing frustration with the sectarian politics that has dominated Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003. The new government and parliament seem to many Iraqis and external observers to be a positive leap forward. Although numbers of Christian families have returned to the Nineveh plains, still, the country faces major rebuilding challenges after the destruction caused by the fight against IS. And the question of the future status of the Kurdistan Regional Government in the North remains unsettled.
In North Africa, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria continue to face economic struggles. Despite political reforms, Tunisia’s high unemployment and austerity measures aimed at reducing its international debt continued to breed anger. On a longer view, the country has made major steps forward in human rights and current legislation before parliament would significantly enhance women’s equality. Algeria remained stable although governing party assertions that ailing 81-year-old President Bouteflika will stand for a fifth successive term in 2019 seem to be delaying the inevitable. Of concern to Algeria’s growing Christian community has been a wave of church closures and arrests. But churches have been bold in challenging the closures, continued meeting in homes and saw three churches reopen. In Libya, there were some signs that the country might be creeping towards stability when leaders of the two rival governments (one recognised internationally and one led by a military strong man) met under UN auspices. The UN hopes to prod the country towards elections next year.
Of course, no brief overview can do justice to the lives of the 500 million people living in the region. While life goes on as usual for some, others are refugees, often facing hostility and the struggle to survive. Islamic militants roam lawless areas, looking for another opportunity. Water levels are dropping and deserts expanding. Economies across the region continue their poor performance, and even the oil-rich nations see the urgent need to expand their economic base. The younger generation in the Gulf are among the most connected to technology in the world, yet are also vulnerable to radicalisation, as their voices hardly ever get a hearing among the elderly elites ruling their countries.
In the midst of this, while facing immense pressures, the Church bears witness and shows its deep anchor in Christ. Perhaps this is best summed up in the words of the Apostle Paul:
We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body…
For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:8-10, 17-18, NIV)