While Middle East Muslims observed the Ramadan fast during the height of summer, a wave of terrorist attacks sent shockwaves across the world.
Terrorist attacks in Tunisia, Egypt, and Kuwait this month shook the region and impacted many lives beyond it. ISIS-affiliated militants sought to do multiple things with these killings. Attacking Western holiday makers in Tunisia, trying (unsuccessfully) to seize military and police sites in North Sinai, and a bomb attack on Shiite worshippers in a Kuwait mosque, were designed to cause multiple fractures. Kurdish and Shiite militias have gained ground advantages amid the continuing US-led campaign against ISIS in Syria and Iraq and ISIS seems to be reacting by stepping up terrorism on a wider front. Cities like London have held large counter-terror exercises.
Egypt has seen casualties numbers climb in a much-feared but predictable phase of attacks and counter attacks by radical Islamists across Egypt and by groups in North Sinai (under a state of emergency since October 2014). Around 100 people – militants, troops and civilians – were killed in coordinated raids on military outposts in Sinai on 1 July. This came two days after the assassination of public prosecutor Hisham Barakat. The signs of an intensified conflict are in plain view: the Egyptian president wore military uniform this week to show his resolve, a police raid killed nine members of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership, and the Brotherhood calling for a national uprising against the regime. There are fears that terrorism could reach unprecedented levels if the regime goes ahead with enforcing the death penalty on ousted president Morsi and many other Muslim Brotherhood leaders.
In Turkey, the failure of the AKP party to win a majority in the June parliamentary elections was a big surprise and showed popular impatience with President Erdogan’s growing ambitions. The increased representation of Turkey’s Kurds (the pro-Kurdish HDP will sit in parliament for the first time and have 79 MPs), of women (96 MPs), and of Christians (4 MPs), are positive signs. However, the need for the AKP to form a coalition government, or pass the mandate to other parties, has left an inconclusive result. Many foresee a coalition between the AKP and nationalist MHP. The impact of such a coalition could be very negative as it would likely harden the stance on crucial issues such as Kurdish rights and peace talks with the outlawed PKK militants.
Meanwhile, the UN has increased its humanitarian alert for Yemen to the highest level. Millions of Yemenis now lack food, water and electricity, as the conflict between Saudi-backed forces and Houthis reaches stalemate. Blockades often prevent aid convoys from reaching those in greatest need.
Saudi Arabia itself announced it had carried out its one hundredth execution by beheading a criminal this year. According to The Independent, this puts the state on course to exceed its 1995 record of 192 executions.
As deadlines came and passed, there were signs of a deal finally being agreed on the nuclear enrichment programmes of Iran this week. Both sides seem keen to reach an agreement this month, and it seems possible. Even so, its application and monitoring will remain vulnerable given the levels of distrust between Iran and other international actors.
The UNHCR has issued a new report revealing that some 60 per cent of people attempting to cross the Mediterranean on leaky boats to Europe are fleeing violence and repression in countries like Syria, Eritrea and Yemen. The UN agency thus called for them to be referred to as “asylum seekers” rather than “migrants” as media reports often describe them. The change in wording is significant, since asylum is an international human right and thousands of asylum seekers have died this year as European countries refused to take them in.
The challenges for many of the region’s Christians remain. In Sudan, 12 Christian women were arrested as they left a church service in Khartoum. The women were wearing skirts or trousers but were charged with public indecency and were ordered to remove these clothes as evidence by the police. Two have been released on bail and now await a court hearing. The latest arrests come as proceedings continue against Pastor Michael Yat and Pastor Peter Reith. Despite the prosecution’s failure to produce evidence at previous hearings, these two Sudanese Christians face multiple charges such as undermining the constitutional system and espionage. If convicted, the penalties range from being whipped through to execution.
In Iran, the harassment and jailing of Christians from a Muslim background continues unabated. The Revolutionary Courts recently sentenced 18 believers to a year and half of imprisonment and a two-year ban on leaving the country. Mohabat News cited the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran on the worsening treatment of Iranian Christians. According to the report, some 92 Christians were arrested or awaiting trial at the start of 2015 because of their faith.
There was recognition in June for an inspiring leader from Egypt who consistently acts as a voice for the Middle East Church and for religious toleration. His Grace Bishop Angaelos, General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK, was awarded the OBE for his services to international religious freedom by Her Majesty the Queen. Bishop Angaelos is one of the patrons of SAT-7.
After a radicalised student ended 38 lives on a holiday beach in Tunisia, it was encouraging to see a new wave of Christian leaders graduating from Middle East theological colleges, committed to sharing a message of life in their various challenging environments. SAT-7’s Bethlehem blogger and college lecturer writes about the graduation of her own students. Please pray for these men and women as they seek to reach their communities more effectively and fulfil the Great Commission in preaching, pastoring and practical service.