The people of the Middle East often seem to have more than their share of the world’s tragedies. Some make it to the news, others barely, but all leave deep scars and questions of whether their lives have value, or whether they and their families have a safe and prosperous future.
Last weekend, a fuel tanker explosion at an Iran–Afghanistan border crossing triggered a massive fire and further explosions among hundreds of lorries carrying gas and fuel. Two blasts were powerful enough to be seen by NASA satellites. Over two dozen people are reported to have died in a blaze that took three days to bring under control. Kabul has a special exemption from US sanctions on Iran, allowing them to import fuels overland.
While this story was covered by a minority of outlets, more attention was given to how Iran has been found producing a tiny quantity of uranium metal in violation of the 2015 nuclear deal. Iran claims it is intended for a research reactor, but experts say that as little as half a kilo of the material can be used in the core of a nuclear bomb. The UK, France and Germany described the move as “deeply concerning”. Meanwhile, Iran and the US are in a standoff. Iran blames the US for breaking with the deal first and says it will follow it if the US lifts the Trump administration’s sanctions. President Biden has responded by saying that sanctions will be removed when Iran adheres to the agreement.
However, the Biden administration is already showing signs of substantial change in US foreign policy. Many have welcomed the announcement that the US will no longer support the Saudi-led coalition war in Yemen and will halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The conflict in Yemen has brought tremendous suffering. Earlier this month, Houthi rebels launched a new campaign to seize control of the city of Marib and its energy resources. The Marib governorate already hosts some 2 million internally displaced people. Meanwhile, a group of UN agencies warned that 400,000 Yemenis were facing acute malnutrition and many would die. Some 80 per cent of the country is able to survive only due to aid.
President Biden’s executive orders rescinding the ban on travel to the US from 13 Muslim-majority nations and one announcing the US’ reentry in the Paris Climate Agreement were applauded by Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, the spiritual leader of Eastern Orthodox Christians.. Bartholomew has made building understanding between Christian and Muslim leaders a priority, and his initiatives on environmental protection have earned him the nickname “the green Patriarch”.
“Arab Spring” anniversary
This last month marked the tenth anniversary of the mass protests that toppled President Mubarak in Egypt. On 25 January 2011, Egypt was rocked by thousands of people of all creeds and political affiliations protesting in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, with their call for “Bread, freedom and social justice”. Youth networks chose the day of an annual holiday in honour of Egypt’s police force to highlight how security forces had often violated their rights during the decades of Mubarak rule.
Extraordinary events first lead to the resignation of Vice President Omar Suleiman, and then President Mubarak. Many across the region were inspired by an outcome that went against all expectations, and similar protests erupted in Libya, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain. It is sad to reflect that, ten years later, the region does not look very different in terms of governance and human rights, nor are we seeing the economies needed to lift millions out of poverty. For many, the great hopes for the future were crushed, young activists were silenced, some radicalised, others emigrated, their voices hijacked or muted by Islamist groups and authoritarian elites.
The political malaise facing Lebanon differs from that of its neighbours, but economic mismanagement and negligence of the infrastructure by its political leaders has brought the country to its knees. Some six months since the harbourside explosion in Beirut, no senior figures have been held accountable for allowing the vast quantity of explosive material stored there for so long and so carelessly. As the economy and public services crumble, Lebanon’s political leaders are yet to establish a government or find a solution to the country’s problems. French President Macron met with Prime Minister designate Saad al-Hariri again last week, frustrated at the inaction since his visit days after the explosion. Lebanon has also seen a huge rise in COVID-19 cases since Christmas and New Year’s Eve when restrictions were eased, with hospitals that are still operating after the explosion overwhelmed. The country has just received its first batch of vaccines with aid from the World Bank.
Lebanon has a history of emigration but give thanks for those who have the means to leave but are choosing to stay and do what they can to help those most in need. There are many reports of lawyers, architects, builders and others, as well as NGOs, who are giving their time for free. SAT-7 Lebanon Executive Director, Maroun Bou-Rached remains hopeful: “God has not forgotten us. We are in His hands. And He will bring renewal and a new dawn to our country.”
In Turkey the government’s decision to break the traditions of one of the country’s leading universities and appoint a former politician as its academic head, rather than one chosen by the university faculty, has triggered two weeks of protests. The selection of Melih Bulu as rector of Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University is seen as an attempt to advance a conservative cultural agenda and bring universities under greater government control. Meanwhile, President Erdogan said that Turkey is planning to send its first ever astronaut into space in 2023 to mark the centenary of the founding of the Turkish Republic.
Sadly, Turkey is also seeing continuing expulsions of foreign Christians. The German pastor of an Istanbul congregation had his first court hearing to contest a deportation order this month. Michael Feulner initially worked in Turkey as a relief worker aiding victims of the 1999 Izmit earthquake and has led the Istanbul Lighthouse Church since 2003. He has been labelled a threat to national security, in common with around 70 other foreign Christians whose residence has been revoked since 2019.
A tragic reminder of the sectarian divisions in Iraq came on 21 January in the form of a double suicide bombing that killed at least 32 people at a second-hand clothes market in Baghdad. The horrific and carefully planned attack occurred at a market that had only recently opened after being closed for about a year due to COVID-19. So-called Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility and said they had targeted Shia Muslims.
Pope Francis is due to visit Baghdad and four other towns in Iraq next month (5-8 March). He condemned the violence as a “senseless act of brutality”. Christians in Iraq are looking forward to his visit to lift their spirits and bring global attention to the situation of believers there. Since the sectarian violence following the removal of Saddam Hussein in 2003, and the later targeting of Christians by IS, believers have been forced to leave the country. Their numbers are thought to have fallen from an estimated 1.4 million to as few as 150,000.