The turning of the year gives us two occasions to renew our hope for the world. Christmas, the first of these, reminds us that no matter what comes to pass, our hope is secure in Christ. New Year’s Eve, the second of these, is a moment to reflect on the year behind us and look forward to opportunities ahead. Just three days in, however, the security and stability of the Middle East was rocked by events in Iraq.
The killing of Iranian military commander Qassim Soleimani in a US drone strike came on the back of escalating tensions between Iran and the US. First there was an Iran-backed militia attack on a US base in Iraq, then US retaliation in the form of missile attacks on five Iranian militia bases, followed by an attempt by militia-led crowds to storm the US embassy in Tehran. What happened next sent shockwaves of concern around the world. Soleimani was seen by many as the second most powerful figure in Iran after Ayatollah Khameini. He was viewed as the architect of Iran’s insurgency against the US in post-Saddam Iraq and the leader of its other foreign interventions.
There was, and remains, deep concern over the fallout from his killing. Even countries in the region that have continually asked the US to take a tougher stand against Iran stayed silent or appealed for both sides to de-escalate the crisis. The Iraqi parliament voted to ask US forces to leave the country, while anti-government protesters who have been calling for an end to both Iranian influence in Iraq and government corruption demanded that the US and Iran “keep their conflicts away from Iraq”.
Christian leaders in Iraq also voiced their fears of the country’s becoming embroiled in a US˗Iran confrontation. Shia militias have already been a threat in some Christian towns, and there is a danger of renewed persecution if believers are perceived as pro-Western or pro-American. Archbishops of the Chaldean and Syriac churches issued a warning on behalf of the Christian community that fear and uncertainty could trigger a new exodus from Iraq, where the Church has dwindled by 90 per cent in a generation.
Regional public opinion seemed divided over the US strike against Soleimani. While tens of thousands of government supporters marched in funeral processions in Iran, civilians who oppose Iranian ally Bashar al-Assad in Syria celebrated by handing out cakes and sweets to strangers. A dramatic shift in public opinion in Iran came when the government there admitted, after three days of denials, that a Ukrainian airliner carrying mostly Iranians and Canadians had been accidentally shot down by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. Protests erupted after the admission of responsibility for the 176 deaths, and anger was further inflamed when pro-government paramilitaries attacked the protestors. Several TV news anchors resigned in what was described as “a funeral of trust” in Iranian authorities.
Although forced on the defensive at home, Iran’s rulers are unlikely to change their foreign policy. From Israel to Saudi Arabia, countries that have seriously tense relations with Iran still lack long-term thinking on how to counter its influence. Thus, in the year ahead, we are likely to see the conflict with Iran continue in the “grey zone” of deniable attacks, cyber warfare, assassinations, sanctions and proxy fights across the region from Lebanon to Afghanistan.
Deepening unrest is also likely to mark other countries where we saw anti-government protests last year. While there has been some progress towards democracy in Sudan, true reform will depend on the readiness of military and paramilitary forces to reduce their power and allow civil leaders to take over. In Algeria, the December election of a new president has done nothing to calm calls for a new political system. All the candidates were selected by the ruling elite, and critics rejected the election as a façade. In Lebanon, despite a new caretaker prime minister, frustration continues as the old elite remains in control, leading many educated young people to consider leaving the country.
The Mediterranean is also set to be the backdrop to new tensions. Russian and Turkish-backed forces arrived in Libya recently to give support to their own preferred rulers, rebel general Haftar and the UN-recognised president respectively. Turkey has sent two thousand fighters recruited from Syrian rebel groups in an attempt to avoid a direct head-to-head conflict with Russia, but the increasing presence of foreign fighters on both sides bodes ill for chances of a lasting peace.
The Libyan conflict is also now directly linked to escalating tensions over recently found gas reserves off Cypriot shores. A maritime agreement signed in December by the Libyan government in Tripoli and by Ankara created a shared corridor across the eastern Mediterranean. It allows Turkey to block a pipeline and exploration projects agreed jointly by the Republic of Cyprus, Greece, Israel and Egypt. This gives Turkey a strong negotiating hand in its demands for a share of resources off the divided island of Cyprus.
Sadly, Syria is set to see many more heart-breaking human tragedies. Some 300,000 people fled their homes in north-west Syria last month as the government campaign to recover the area, backed by Russian bombing, persisted.
On a brighter note, the Gulf state of Oman has been an oasis of calm in the region. Sultan Qaboos, who has died after a nearly 50-year reign, worked hard to address divisions in his own country and to facilitate dialogue between regional and international rivals while avoiding being dragged into alliances and conflicts. It remains to be seen whether the new sultan, a cousin of Qaboos, will follow the same path.
Across the region, Christians continue to witness in the homelands of the faith, knowing that they are among the most vulnerable communities in times of unrest. In Egypt believers are breathing more easily after fewer terrorist attacks over the last two years, although several churches were recently damaged by suspicious fires. For the sixth year running Egyptian President El-Sisi visited the Christmas Eve vigil led by the Coptic Orthodox Patriarch and gave a message of religious inclusion. “If we love God, we must love each other, and we must not allow anyone to sow discord among us,” he stressed. Changing entrenched attitudes towards Christians and other minorities, however, is a long-term process and one in which SAT-7 programmes that show the lives and values of Christians play a part.
A government campaign to close Protestant churches in Algeria rolls on. Yet another congregation saw its building shuttered on 12 January. Algerian believers will continue to press for the reopening of around 15 meeting places authorities have closed. In Turkey, meanwhile, January has seen the arrest of an Assyrian monk. Father Aho is charged with defying government orders by giving food and water to PKK militants when these were demanded at gunpoint. Middle East believers are often caught between a rock and a hard place and depend on our prayer support. Bakhrom Kholmatov, a pastor in Tajikistan released last month after serving nearly three years for “singing extremist songs in church”, gave thanks for all who prayed for him. “Your prayers helped us to stand strong through all these difficulties, to grow spiritually and to transform into the nature of our Heavenly Lord,” Kholmatov testified.