“War-war” continued apace in Syria as “jaw-jaw” in Geneva was put on hold. Meanwhile, excitement in Tehran contrasted with a sombre mood in Cairo on the fifth anniversary of Egypt’s revolution.
News from the region
A new series of meetings in Geneva that had brought most parties fighting in Syria to the negotiating table was suspended on Wednesday (3 February) only two days after talks began. Expectations had been low to start with since all stakeholders have different demands and red-lines. The halt in diplomacy came as Syrian troops backed by aggressive Russian air attacks escalated campaigns to reclaim rebel-held territory. Opposition groups said Syria was not complying with the UN resolution which mandated the talks, as it requires an end to airstrikes and humanitarian relief for suffering civilians.
Some see a blessing in disguise in the Syrian regime advances as they think a peace deal can more easily be made with Russia and Syria than with a myriad militant groups. Yet, as the UK Foreign Office has repeatedly stated, the Russian campaigns are killing many civilians and target the same rebels who are fighting so-called Islamic State (IS). Meanwhile, another Russian jet briefly entered Turkish airspace followed by an international sigh of relief when Turkey, this time, did not shoot it down.
In Egypt, the fifth anniversary of the 2011 revolution that ousted President Mubarak passed without major incident. This was partly because of a heavy government crackdown on activists, including those commenting via social media. Despair seemed to pervade articles by the Egyptian voices that have been calling for change over the last 5 years.
In contrast, Tunisia, the country that really gave birth to the “Arab Spring”, saw massive protests in the last few weeks. A curfew was declared as demonstrators gathered in multiple towns calling for more jobs (unemployment is 15.2 per cent, according to the World Bank). As these protests ended, 3,000 police – who have been at the forefront of the country’s conflict with Islamists – marched to the presidential palace to demand more pay.
Economic troubles even began to show themselves in Saudi Arabia. The country’s more interventionist foreign policy, targeted at countering a resurgent Iran, faces the challenge of falling oil revenues amid plummeting prices. Though the country has strong reserves, it also has deep foreign debts and needs generous funds to maintain its domestic expenditure.
Iran, on the other hand, was in ebullient mood after sanctions were lifted (16 January) and international companies began eyeing opportunities in the country. Iran now has access to billions of dollars of previously frozen assets and can purchase airplanes and other items barred under the sanctions.
In Turkey, clashes between Turkish forces and the outlawed Kurdish PKK militants continue. The fight has turned some towns and districts in South East Turkey into war zones, with thousands of people leaving their homes. PKK attacks on schools and rocket attacks that claimed civilian lives attracted condemnation. Meanwhile, curfews enforced on entire towns by Turkish forces raised serious humanitarian concerns.
In South Sudan progress towards a stable peace is slow after two years of conflict along ethnic lines between factions loyal to President Kiir and Prime Minister Macher. Nevertheless, the announcement by Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir that the border between the two countries will be opened has been welcomed. Relations have been tense since South Sudan seceded from Sudan in 2011 after a long civil war.
News from the Church
The Association of Turkish Protestant Churches released its annual report summarising human rights violations and the challenges faced by Christians in year 2015. The numerous cases of threats made to pastors and churches by radical Islamists make for disturbing reading. Misleading newspaper reports warning Muslims of Christian missionary activities also surfaced again. Meanwhile, school religious education text books continue to portray Christian missionaries as a national threat.
The escalated violence between Turkish forces and the PKK is affecting the small number of Christians who live in the predominantly Kurdish South East of Turkey. Historically, this region has also been home to Syriac Christians, whose roots reach back to the first centuries of Christianity. A 1,700-year-old Syriac Orthodox church in Diyarbakir was damaged in crossfire between security forces and PKK members, and the priest and his family were forced to leave the compound. Some media outlets falsely claimed that police had found PKK weapons in the church. These reports were debunked widely, including by Turkish officials. Protestant pastors, meanwhile, travelled to Diyarbakir from across the country to meet with local government officers and called on all participants to seek peace.
In Egypt, three Coptic Christian high school students have been accused of blasphemy and will face trial. The students appeared in a home-made video, apparently pretending to pray and recite the Qur’an as Muslims, while laughing. One drew a finger across his throat to mock the way IS behead their victims. The clip was viewed as showing contempt for Islam itself. It led to riots in their village and the expulsion of their teacher and his family from their home.
On a more inclusive note, President Sisi visited Cairo’s St Mark’s Cathedral on the Eastern Christmas Eve (`6 January) for the second running. He gave Christmas greetings to the Christian community and confronted religious teachers who had Muslims not to greet Christians during the festival. ~He urged Egyptians to unite regardless of their religion and pledged that church properties which had not been rebuilt since the August 2014 burningswould be restored this year.
There was also a joyful atmosphere in SAT-7’s Cairo office when Egyptian authorities returned the equipment they confiscated back in October. It has been a testing time for the Egypt studio but it has been a relief to see equipment and unedited programmes on computers returned unharmed. The issue had drawn international attention and prayer from Christians around the world, and was raised directly with the Egyptian government by British Parliamentarians.
Sadly, satellite images made public by the Associated Press last month showed that IS has completely destroyed a 1,400-year-old monastery near Mosul, Iraq. No one is certain as to when the barbarous act was done, but IS has controlled the area since August 2014. The monastery’s destruction appears to be part of a campaign to eradicate any signs of the area’s deep Christian heritage.