Some words of Sir Winston Churchill, whose funeral 50 years ago was remembered last month, remain as relevant as ever: “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.” While brutality and war-war continued to dominate news from the MENA region, talks and common sense pulled others back from the brink.
The war in Syria continues in all its brutality. The beheadings of two Japanese citizens and the burning to death of a Jordanian pilot shook their home nations deeply. Some 600 air strikes by the US-led task force and the bold stand by Kurdish fighters have stopped the so-called Islamic State (IS) from overtaking the border town of Kobane, but the militant organisation still attracts fighters and now holds territory the size of the UK. Recent US plans to arm opposition fighters in Syria have stalled, because of the difficulty of controlling where the weapons might end up and assessing the capacity of various groups and how they relate to extremists.
The region also held its breath as Hezbollah fired missiles into Israel, killing and injuring Israeli soldiers. Israel retaliated by bombing Hezbollah targets in Southern Lebanon. This followed an Israeli bombardment of a group of fighters near its Syrian border, which claimed the life of an Iranian commander. As Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu continued to push the US to call off the current, promising phase of negotiations on nuclear weapons with Iran, and Netanyahu and Hezbollah leader Nasrallah threatened to rain bombs on each other’s countries, many feared a much wider conflict with Lebanon and confrontation with Iran. For now, the tension seems to have calmed.
In Iran, President Rouhani came under increased attack from the conservatives and hardliners in the security establishment. His olive branch to the US and Europe has put him under intense pressure at home and unless there is a major breakthrough in negotiations – particularly on the lifting of sanctions – Rouhani’s presidency will be under threat. There are already signals that former president Ahmadinejad might be planning his return to politics.
The death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah added another unknown factor to the region. Saudi Arabia remains one of the most powerful but often quiet forces in the region. As oil prices fell, there was a risk that the King’s death could trigger tensions in the Kingdom and global markets. However, the public transition was as smooth as possible as the Saudi monarchy showed its skill in managing a complex social and political system. The change in monarch is not expected to bring any major policy shift.
In Yemen, Houthi rebels took the control of government buildings in the capital and forced the resignation of the government and President Mansour Hadi. Houthis reject the legitimacy of the parliament, object to a draft constitution that would divide the country into six regions, and demand their fighters be integrated into Yemen’s security forces. UN-brokered talks involving the Houthi leadership and Yemen’s political parties are attempting to agree on a presidential transitional council to pave the way for new presidential elections.
In Turkey, the political chaos continues as the government prepares for landmark elections in June. President Erdogan continues to push for an enhanced presidential system, for which the AKP party will need a majority of seats in parliament. As substantial numbers of AKP MPs won’t be able to run again due to the three-terms cap, a new generation of MPs will be emerging.
The release of Peter Greste, the Al Jazeera journalist imprisoned in Egypt for 400 days, was widely welcomed. There are signs that the remaining two Al Jazeera journalists will also be released.
Neighbouring Libya, meanwhile, continues to see violent groups clashing over power and oil. The latest was the capture of al-Mabrouk oilfield. Two rival bodies claim leadership of the country, while many smaller militias are carving out their own areas of control. There are worries over ISIS plans to be active in Libya. Recently, Libya’s internationally recognised parliament revoked a bill that banned Gaddafi-era officials from holding state jobs.
Lord of all, comfort those who grieve, turn the hearts of those poisoned by hatred, guide and strengthen the resolve of all who work for peace, justice and the common good. Amen.
In Iraq, Christians are forming armed forces to defend and retake their towns from IS. Some 2,000 men are reported to have joined the initiative. It is not clear from where these militias will get support: they hope that the US government will supply arms and training. There are already Christians fighting with Kurdish armed groups.
The government of Turkey continues its policy of returning land and properties belonging to Christians which were seized in the 60s and 70s. The latest was a large cemetery and its land. As well as recognising Christian ownership of the land, this could have a practical benefit since very few graveyards managed by the Christian communities and believers often face problems in finding a burial plot.
After President Sisi’s historic visit to the Christmas Eve service at Cairo’s Coptic Cathedral and a speech challenging religious discrimination, there was another promising move in Egypt. The government has now given permission to construct three new churches. This is significant as even basic repairs to existing buildings have often been a matter of controversy and been stopped by state security. All new church constructions in Egypt currently require the President’s permission. While some parliamentarians had pushed for legislation that would effectively lift all restrictions, this is yet to happen.
In Iran, a convert from Islam to Christianity, Vahid Hakani, has been released from jail after three years. He was forced to a sign a declaration that he will not participate in any Christian activities or risk being returned to prison at any given time. Of the eight believers originally arrested with Vahid, two now remain in detention: Homayoun and Motjaba. Please remember them and all other Christians still held in prison in Iran.
Christians who try to escape poverty in Egypt by finding work in Libya face serious risks. In two separate incidents at the turn of the year over 20 were kidnapped by jihadist groups and their faces posted online by an ISIS affiliate. Previous incidents ended with the murder of the Christians – mostly from poor communities in Upper Egypt. SAT-7’s Bridges programme (clip above) interviewed families and neighbours of the missing men. Egypt actively pursues military strikes against jihadist groups in Libya, placing Egyptian Christians at double risk because of their faith and their nationality.
Heavenly Father, please keep safe the kidnapped workers in Libya and return them to their families. Guide and strengthen our brothers and sisters, where they are serving to defend their communities or faithfully witnessing to you in restricted lands. Be their joy, their Rock, and their sustainer. Amen.