The vulnerability of many of the essential ingredients for peace and security – freedom from conflict, basic utilities, health and food security, and freedom of belief– were exposed once again in another challenging month in the region.
In Turkey, President Erdogan has ordered that Hagia Sophia, Istanbul’s fifth century basilica and a World Heritage Site, should become a mosque again. The structure was the first cathedral to be built under the Roman Empire but was converted to a mosque after Ottoman Turks conquered the city in 1453. Its status was changed to a museum in 1934 by Mustafa Kamel Ataturk, the founder of the modern Republic of Turkey. That decision was annulled this month by a Turkish court. Islamic prayers are set to recommence on 24 July, although the building will remain open to people of all faiths. Global church leaders voiced sadness at the change. The Presidents of Churches Together in England, representing the Anglican, Free, Pentecostal, Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches, said that “Hagia Sophia has been a unique centre symbolising a co-existence of people of faith…The decision to alter the status quo in this way is a powerful, symbolic change that is lamentable and painful for many people of faith the world over”.
Meanwhile, the region’s conflicts continued. In the grey zone of undercover aggression between states, a series of explosions and fires damaged key nuclear enrichment plants in Iran. Reuters news agency reported that anonymous Iranian officials said Israel was thought to be responsible while Israel’s foreign minister commented that “our actions in Iran [are] better left unsaid”.
At home, Israel’s coalition government is in turmoil. After rapidly lifting its COVID-19 restrictions, the country has experienced a second wave of COVID-19 infections that outstripped original levels. The Netanyahu government is also facing strong international pressure not to pursue the annexation of Palestinian territories he promised. The deadline to do this has passed although it may happen, at least in part, before November’s US presidential elections. While there is growing international recognition that a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine question has become unrealistic, the prospect of a one-state solution offers little clarity over the future rights of Palestinians.
From Iraq came the sad news of the assassination of a prominent and widely respected Iraqi analyst on so-called Islamic State and militant groups. Husham Al Hashimi, who worked closely with the Iraqi government and international organisations on security and terrorism issues, was shot dead outside his Baghdad home. Al Hashimi was highly critical of the militias that are acting like war lords and undermining reform and a better future for all in his country. Many suspect Iran-related groups to have been behind the attack.
The not-so-grey zone tensions continued too. France and Turkey have clashed in public over Libya. Turkey has aided the UN- and NATO-backed government in Tripoli in its advance against the eastern-based Field Marshall Haftar. Haftar has French, UAE, Russian and Egyptian support. France has been angered at Turkey’s increased military presence and the possibility of it establishing two bases in Libya if Tripoli agrees. Egypt also warned that it would not allow militias fighting for Tripoli to capture Sirte or the Al-Jufra airbase in central Libya. Egypt wants to prevent cross-border activities by jihadist groups and all players are concerned about who controls Libya’s oil installations and who plays a key role in its future.
Keep praying for Yemen. Houthi rebels last weekend claimed to have mounted a missile attack on a major oil facility and to have killed dozens of senior officers in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis reported that they had intercepted a number of missiles but did not comment further. The Saudi-led coalition, meanwhile, continues its air strikes on Houthi targets and was blamed on Monday for an apparently accidental strike that killed nine civilians. COVID-19 is now spreading in a country where around half of the medical facilities have been destroyed and those that remain are not equipped to respond. On top of this, Yemen, along with several countries in the Horn of Africa, has been hit by a locust invasion that is causing massive crop destruction. UN Humanitarian Coordinator Lise Grande said, “Yemen can’t take much more. Health and water programmes are shutting, famine is stalking the country again, and people all across the country are being hit hard by COVID.”
In Lebanon, the economy and currency continue in freefall, forcing more and more of the population into poverty. The International Monetary Fund continues to urge a loan process that is grounded on true reform but so far without agreement from Lebanese politicians. On social media families who have lost everything are bartering the most basic items – cups, shoes, clothes, chairs – in exchange for food, formula milk, and nappies.
Lebanese taxi driver Toni Fares lost his job at the start of the pandemic. He told SAT-7’s You are Not Alone programme that he dare not take his three-year-old out of the house for fear she will ask for something he cannot afford. He has already had to sell her swing and the family’s washing machine to buy food. Amid lengthening power cuts and no money to run his own generator, the fridge is off most of the time and the family are living off potatoes and eggs. Meat has become unaffordable for many and 60 per cent of butchers have closed.
As the full economic effects of the pandemic unfold, further pain is likely for the Middle East and North Africa as a whole. Responding to the oil price crunch, the IMF recently projected the region’s economy will shrink by 4.7 percent by the end of 2020.
In some good news, Sudan has announced sweeping reforms to reverse human rights violations. These include scrapping the apostasy law that could impose the death penalty for anyone changing their religion away from Islam. You might remember the story of Meriam Ishag, who was charged with apostasy in 2014 when she married a Christian man and was sentenced to be hanged. She was pregnant at the time and was eventually able to leave the country. Sudan is one of the few countries in the word that codified apostasy as a crime with capital punishment. Other reforms that are being introduced to strengthen the country’s democratic transition are banning female genital mutlilation (FGM), and end to public flogging and is lifting the ban on alcohol use by non-Muslims.
Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok hailed the amendments to the 1991 Criminal Law introduced by President Al-Bashir as “an important step in reforming the justice system.” The Justice Minister said cancelling the apostasy law “ensured religious freedom and the equality in citizenship and rule of law.” He said the justice ministry will also bring in new legislation to revoke all discriminatory provisions against women and children.
One year after the Bishop of Truro published his report into UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office support for persecuted Christians, the current government has confirmed that it will seek to implement its recommendations. Rehman Chisti, the United Kingdom’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB), also welcomed the government’s confirmation that its new sanctions regime for individuals involved in serious human rights violations will include cases where people have been mistreated because of their beliefs.