At the start of a new year, what countries and developments should we be watching? Where should we be focusing our prayers?
High in our concerns this year must be the nation of Iran. “In the midst of all the bad news we are hearing there is only one piece of good news. It is that Christ is the Lord and Saviour and He will save the Iranian nation: I believe in that.” So wrote Ayman, a long-standing SAT-7 viewer in the country.
The protests against Iran’s repressive government, triggered in September by the death of Mahsa Amini, continue. Violence meted out by the Basij militia and other security forces has claimed over 500 lives. This, alongside up to 20,000 arrests and several executions without fair trials, has failed to halt the demonstrations.
Although they are not the first mass protests in the 43-year history of the Islamic Republic, many believe these are different and that Iran could be approaching a tipping point. While demonstrations have been strongest among minorities that have deep grievances – Kurdish provinces and Sistan-Baluchistan – people of all classes, ethnicities, and faiths, have united across the country. Rather than calling for specific reforms on women’s rights they are demanding a completely new political order. Iran’s rulers will continue to resist this by seeking to instill fear and relying upon the 100,000 to 150,000-strong Revolutionary Guard.
In response, we should pray that God’s Kingdom of justice and light will prevail, asking for the safety of peaceful protesters and that the country’s largely underground Church will be a source of hope and healing.
It is only weeks since the Holy Land’s Christian community – joined by tourist numbers approaching pre-covid levels – marked the birth of the Prince of Peace. But this contested land seems set to face increased tensions and trauma this year. The last 12 months witnessed the highest level of violence and numbers of killings of Palestinians and Jews in the West Bank and Israel in over 15 years.
A newly formed government by returning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks set to deepen divisions within Israeli society. To secure power, Netanyahu formed a coalition with ultranationalist and religious parties and gave senior government roles to several leaders. The new government has made plain its opposition to any two-state solution in the Holy Land and has alienated Jews across a range of issues. An estimated 80,000 marched in Tel Aviv (14 January) to voice their opposition to the new administration’s plans to weaken the Supreme Court, believing that it undermines judicial independence and threatens minority rights.
Afghanistan remains a major concern. The Taliban seems to be confirming the worst fears as it extends its crushing of women’s freedoms. In November women and girls were banned from public parks on the pretext that they had failed to achieve gender segregation. A month later, they announced an indefinite ban on women going to university. For over a year most girls had already been prevented from attending secondary schools. Public floggings of men and women accused of offences such as robbery or adultery have also been implemented. Pray that the Afghan people do not give up hope and that these measures will be seen to be damaging to the country and will be reversed.
SAT-7 has increased its programmes for Afghan viewers, adding a new worship and teaching programme, Sweet Truth, to its schedule and its interactive Church4Afghanistan programme on social media. Through this we see encouraging signs of God at work. “We always follow your programmes and are blessed by them,” says Dalir. “Please keep us in your prayers – we are very grateful to you,” he adds.
A century of the Republic
We move on to Türkiye. In 2023 this influential nation of 85 million citizens will mark the centenary of the Turkish Republic. In more than 20 years of power, first as Prime Minister and then as President, given executive powers for the first time, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has left his mark on Türkiye and the region. The first ten years brought economic growth and wealth and a moderate political Islam that was seen as a model by many. But the second half of his tenure saw the arrest of thousands of public figures following the 2016 failed coup, and economic policies leading to inflation of 85 per cent last October. Support for the president and his AKP party has fallen to around 30 per cent.
Strong nationalist policies have become a key part of the president’s strategy as he seeks to win another term. In recent months he has repeatedly threatened a land invasion of the northeastern border of Syria in order to build a 20-mile buffer and dislodge Kurdish SDF (Syrian Defence Forces) soldiers and officials. But David Eubank, the founder of the Free Burma Rangers (FBR), a Christian humanitarian movement that has been supporting people in the area, said that Christians, Arabs and Yazidis in the area are being killed too. He told the Jerusalem Post, “Everyone here [got] scared when they heard there may be a ground offensive. We pray to Jesus to stop this fighting.” The US, which armed the SDF to defeat Islamic State in Syria, strongly opposes any invasion. Meanwhile, six opposition parties have formed an alliance to stop the president’s AKP party from returning as the governing party in parliament. Interestingly, the pro-Kurdish HDP party, which isn’t part of the alliance, could emerge as kingmaker if neither the AKP or this alliance wins.
The country of Syria saw the lowest death toll from conflict in a decade last year but almost 70 per cent of its population are in need of humanitarian assistance according to the UN Security Council. The appointment of a new archbishop in Homs this month gives an insight into the trauma the country has endured since 2011. Priest Jacques Mourad was head of a monastery that received hundreds of people fleeing fighting in 2015. He was later taken captive by Islamic State in Raqqa but made a daring escape. He becomes a bishop serving the 2,000-member Syriac Catholic Church.
Life in the Gulf, meanwhile, looks very different for Saudi Arabia. The state looks set to become the world’s fastest growing economy this year, driven by demand for its oil. Its war against Houthi rebels in Yemen, however, continues to cause suffering. A six-month truce, twice extended, last year brought relief to civilians but the Houthis, who control the north and urban centres, apparently see more advantage in continuing the fight, despite the civilian suffering.
Transition on hold
Another country to watch this year is Sudan. The country began political reforms and a three-year transition towards democracy after the fall of President al-Bashir in 2019. A new constitution provided for freedom of religion and decriminalised apostasy. However, a military takeover in 2021 put the process in doubt. A new transition framework has been signed by some of the civilian parties and the military aimed at completing the handover to civilian rule in another two years. Outstanding issues, such as prosecution for the 3 June 2019 massacre remain, and some parties think the agreement allows room for the army to continue to hold the real power.
Turning to smaller countries, let’s not forget Lebanon and Tunisia. Lebanese daily l’Orient De Jour called 2022 a year “of crushed hope”. Ten votes on a replacement president have so far failed in a long-lasting political stalemate. Meanwhile, tens of thousands emigrate for opportunities abroad in the biggest emigration since the 1975-90 civil war, and poorer Lebanese risk their lives in dinghies to cross the Mediterranean by unofficial routes. Pray for a political breakthrough and for all those who remain committed to Lebanon, including the many churches who are serving the “left behind” people and, of course, SAT-7’s Lebanon team who continue to broadcast Christian hope and support.
Tunisia, meanwhile, has a president, Kais Saied, who suspended parliament in 2021, rewrote the constitution and has at least temporarily assumed most state powers to himself. Distrustful of political parties, he has diluted parliament’s power and encouraged more individuals to stand as independents committed to their local community. Over 1,000 candidates stood but voters mostly stayed away, leaving most constituencies to require a second round of elections. Meanwhile, the economy weakens and unemployment rises. Tunisia was the first Arab Spring country and has a greater heritage of freedom of expression than most Middle East nations. We are grateful for our SAT-7 partner, Perpetua media, which serves Tunisia’s small Christian community.
As we consider what is happening in the Middle East and North Africa at the start of a new year, and commit this region to the Lord in prayer, let’s give thanks for the message of hope, joy and faith that SAT-7 is bringing to millions and ask that many more lives will be changed in the months ahead.