While Turkey geared up for elections which could have long-term internal and regional ramifications, the war against ISIS and proxy battles in Yemen dominated elsewhere. Christians in Turkey had reason to celebrate but faced discrimination in Egypt, Israel and Iran.
News from the region
On 7 June, Turkish citizens will vote in what is seen as one of the most important elections in Turkey’s history. Over the last two years, there have been serious concerns over the hardening attitude of the AK Party government and lapses in Turkey’s human rights improvements. Mass protests, corruption scandals and a very public clash between the AKP and Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen and his followers have charged politics and social relations in the country. The ruling party wants to secure a majority in parliament that will be large enough both to form a single party government and enact constitutional changes to give further executive power to President Erdogan. Whereas, the prime minister currently has the main executive power, Erdogan wants to move to a full presidential system similar to the US.
The only thing likely to halt these ambitions is a possible strong performance by the Kurdish HDP. If the HDP passes the 10 per cent electoral threshold (which would enable it to assume a place in parliament), the AKP will see a serious drop in the number of MPs it can have. A Kurdish party in the parliament would also make more mainstream political negotiations over Kurdish grievances possible. If not, there are signs that Kurdish groups will pursue civil unrest. Many believe these elections will see vote rigging to prevent the HDP from achieving their goal.
This week, the US-led coalition against ISIS met in Paris. The fall of the Iraqi city of Ramadi to ISIS, just when many thought the group was losing steam, was a serious shock. US officials cited the unwillingness of Sunni Iraqi troops to fight, while Baghdad blamed a lack of commitment from the US in adequate arms and aerial support, and antipathy toward Shiite militias. While the US is focused on defeating ISIS, regional actors such as Turkey, Saudi, Qatar and even Baghdad want greater US commitment in addressing the overall situation in Syria and Iraq. Without stabilising both countries, military responses will only slow IS’ advance.
In Syria, Assad continues aerial bombings and killings of civilians with little media attention. The regime is now thought to control no more than 30 per cent of the country, though its backers remain resolute. Iranian government figures issued assurances that they will side with the regime until the end, and some report that Iran plans to scale up its armed support. To fund this, however, Iran urgently needs an agreement with the US on its nuclear programme and the lifting of sanctions before the current US president leaves office.
Saudi Arabia’s desire to curb Iranian influence is seen in its support for opposition groups in Syria and ongoing operations in Yemen. The UN continues to push for talks between the Yemeni government and Houthi rebels. A recent attempt to bring both sides together for direct talks failed, but another attempt will be made in Geneva on 10 June.
News from the Church
We were delighted to see that Iran has appointed a Christian as the team captain for its national football team. This is a warm gesture in line with similar signals sent toward established minority communities such as the Armenians and Jews. President Rouhani has used social media regularly to send good wishes to Jews and Christians on their religious holidays. But such gestures do not detract from the situations of around 80 known Iranian Christian converts currently held in jail nor the latest news that an additional one-year prison sentence on top of the six years he is serving has been upheld for Pastor Farshid Fathi. He and fellow believer Alireza Sayyedian are being held on the same wing as prisoners convicted of robbery, violence and drug-related crimes.
The launch of SAT-7 TURK on Turkey’s official state satellite has expanded the reach of our programmes tremendously. It has been moving to see how Christians across the country have been encouraged by having a dedicated channel they can watch. The channel found itself in a media storm when Melih Ekener, the Executive Director, was invited to be interviewed by many national television channels and newspapers. As a result, the channel’s website is visited by thousands of people every week.
In Egypt, the village of Beni Suef saw the burning of a dozen Coptic Christian homes when a Christian man was accused of insulting the Muslim prophet on Facebook. Reports showed that some Muslims helped Copts defend their properties during the tensions. Local authorities arranged a meeting between the parties at which it was decided to send the accused Christian man and his family away from the area. Such ‘reconciliation meetings’ are common: Copts are asked to forgive their attackers and no one is brought justice. Amid deteriorating security, Coptic Christians make easy targets for politically disillusioned Islamists, and often for petty criminals who just want to seize their land and properties.
In Jerusalem, police had to disperse Jewish extremists who blocked the traditional site of the Last Supper, when Christians tried to hold a prayer service to celebrate Pentecost. The Jewish grouped claimed the service would desecrate Mount Zion. The incident came shortly after an unprecedented protest by church leaders and others over new regulations on Christian schools in Israel. These will cap the fees they can charge at a fraction of the amount private Jewish schools can charge. The 50 or so Christian schools serving 33,000 students have needed to increase fees after state subsidy cuts of 45 per cent in the last 10 years.
Christians in the Palestinian territories, numbers of whom have steadily declined, were honoured by the Catholic Church when two 19th century Palestinian nuns were canonised as saints by Pope Francis. Pope Francis maintains a strong passion for Christians of the Middle East and the suffering they face.
Lebanon has been without a President for a year now. Its constitution – set up to managed communal tensions – requires the president to be chosen from Maronite Christians, the prime minister to be a Sunni, and the speaker of the parliament to be a Shiite. Christians continue to voice concern that no president has been appointed and there is no sign it will be done soon.