As World Cup fever lightens the mood in many Middle East nations, Turkey races towards historic elections and Yemen faces a new crisis, but Algerian Christians are giving thanks after several churches closed in a government crackdown were reopened.
In Turkey, the nation is in the last week of campaigning before historic elections on 24 June. Citizens will vote both for a president and for members of parliament. Most importantly, they will choose an executive president for the first time in Turkey’s history, and the office of prime minister will cease. Until a few months ago, most observers thought a victory by President Erdogan would be inevitable. However, opposition parties have gained a new momentum while Erdogan’s AKP party has made a number of mistakes during the election process. If no candidate achieves at least 51 per cent in the first round of votes, there will be a repeat election two weeks later. If Erdogan does not win outright, opposition parties are likely to unite behind Muharrem Ince of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), who is proving to be an equally effective campaigner. Nevertheless, a state of emergency continues, and the voice of the AKP dominates all public media outlets. The president and his party have been offering all kinds of vote-winning incentives, but the energy and dynamism of opposition parties has also been high. Do pray for Turkey, for a peaceful outcome and for stability as they face further economic and political challenges in the longer term.
In Yemen the decision of the Saudi-led coalition to take control of Yemen’s rebel-held port city, Hodeida, has caused grave concerns. The port is the main entry point for food and humanitarian supplies. A Saudi-led blockade of the country has already led to a cholera outbreak affecting a million people and has severely restricted the entry of health supplies into the country. Fierce fighting has begun as coalition helicopters target Houthi rebel snipers, positioned on the roofs of homes, schools and mosques. While the Houthis are accused of using civilians as human shields, international observers fear the campaign will result in many more civilian deaths and an even worse humanitarian crisis.
A puzzling mix of reform and repression continues in Saudi Arabia. For the first time, some 60 women have been given driving licences after King Salman revoked the country’s ban on women drivers. But the measure has been overshadowed by the arrest of dozens of women’s rights activists, including those who have been campaigning for the freedom to drive. These mixed messages remind us of the need for caution in understanding symbolic gestures and not read too much meaning into them.
It has been fun to see the excitement of Iranians, including Christians, at seeing their football team take part in the World Cup. However, the tensions over the fate of the nuclear enrichment deal reached with P5+1 countries continue. Since the US pulled out of the deal and signalled a series of severe sanctions on Iran, European countries have stuck to their position that the deal is preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons and that Iran is abiding by the terms of the deal. Yet, several key European companies have said they will withdraw from projects in Iran when sanctions begin to take effect, as they fear substantial US penalties. Iranian President Rouhani is heading out on a European tour this July to garner support for the continuation of the deal. The UK and other European states are in a tight corner and need to somehow balance their policies on Iran with the US pressure.
Joy and pain
Like the Iranians, Egyptians too have been excited about the World Cup although their team has had a disappointing start to the tournament. Away from the football, a harsh but necessary series of austerity measures came into force in Egypt, with substantial price increases in gas, fuel and travel costs. The country has a huge budget deficit, and the state continues to give its citizens substantial subsidies on food and oil prices. The measures are part of a restructuring effort in a loan deal with the IMF. Some have taken their anger to the streets in protests. Meanwhile, fighter jets flew over parliament as President Al-Sisi was sworn in for a second term. He vowed to fight “those who choose violence, terrorism and extremism” but has been criticised for a further state crackdown on human rights. Several prominent free speech defenders and rights activists have been arrested in new police measures.
Coptic Christians in Egypt, on the other hand, continue to be short-changed by the justice system. After a mob pelted a church in a village near Alexandria with Molotov cocktails and injured several Copts, police arrested 11 extremists and 9 Christians, including 4 who were injured. Authorities organised a “reconciliation meeting” during which the Christians were obliged to waive charges against the assailants for permission to carry on meeting as a congregation. Another incident occurred in Beni Souef governorate when Copts objected to Muslim men swimming naked in a canal in front of Christian homes. The Copts’ homes were attacked with stones and police arrested 7 Copts and 2 Muslims, only releasing the Christians on condition that they didn’t press charges.
Like Egypt, resource-poor Jordan is struggling to reduce the national debt and meet requirements for new IMF funding. The normally stable country this month saw the largest protest rallies in recent years triggered by tax rises. The demonstrations forced a change of prime minister but are unlikely to halt austerity measures as the country struggles to overcome a loss of investment by UAE and Saudi Arabia.
Please remember Iraq in prayer. Last month citizens gave the biggest vote share to a coalition led by controversial Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr. No government was formed, however, as no party emerged with an outright majority. In the meantime, allegations of electoral fraud led parliament to order a manual recount, before which a suspicious warehouse fire sent half the ballot papers up in smoke. This prompted calls for a re-run of the entire election. In an attempt to defuse tensions, Al-Sadr this week announced an unexpected alliance with Iranian-backed militia chief Hadi al-Amiri, and said they would work towards forming a government.
Christians in Algeria gave thanks this month when three churches were reopened in Oran province. A crackdown by authorities over the last seven months saw the forced closure of six churches in the country. Three leaders of the legally recognised Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA) visited Europe to draw attention to the situation and last week the seals came off the doors of half the closed churches. Most closures had been enforced on grounds of alleged non-compliance with safety regulations, but no explanation was given for the change of stance. Please give thanks for the openings and pray for the remaining congregations that are unable to meet publicly. Give thanks, too, that SAT-7’s weekly My Church broadcasts from Algeria have been able to continue and a new series of Algerian testimonies starts screening this week.