While the COVID-19 pandemic continued to add new layers of distress in the region, there were signs of God at work.
WATCH NOW: SAT-7 TÜRK reports on the easing of restrictions in Turkey
Turkey was one of the first countries to be affected by the virus. Initially, its response was more successful than that of most European countries and fatalities were kept at a very low level. Yet, as restrictions eased and people started going out to beaches and parks, it has seen a new wave of infections. Egypt, meanwhile, has seen a rapid increase in the virus with infection numbers and deaths escalating daily. There were also reports of some media inciting hatred against doctors who resigned or threatened to strike because of insufficient protections, testing and beds for frontline workers who have become ill. At least 22 doctors are reported to have died. Curfews are being enforced but the government is struggling as it also faces pressure to open up the economy. In Iran, a two-month peak in the number of deaths after relaxing restrictions prompted fears of a second wave of infection.
Most worryingly, the true scope of infection in war-torn Yemen is unknown. Some estimates suggest that the country will see more coronavirus fatalities than people lost to war. While the conflict has eased lately, the UN faces an almost $1 billion gap in its aid budget for Yemen as promised funds have not arrived.
Saudi Arabia has the highest reported rate of infection in the Gulf region and saw infections peak again after it reopened places of worship and businesses. It imposed curfews in Jeddah recently and the new spike in Riyadh will bring further restrictions. A different spike came in the form of a 30 per cent increase in the kingdom’s divorce rate. The majority of requests came from professional women who, during quarantine, discovered that their husbands had secretly married other wives.
In some good news, the Prime Minister of Tunisia announced that his country has recorded no new Covid-19 cases, and had less than 50 fatalities. The country was effective in repatriating its citizens safely while managing the spread of infection. Pray, too, for the country’s very small but growing church. Open Doors reports an estimated 800 people who have become believers over the last two years.
Under quarantine, Turkey has also seen larger numbers attracted to the Gospel after hearing it on SAT-7 and from churches which seized the opportunity to go live on social media. SAT-7 TÜRK saw a 285 per cent increase in viewer engagement in May1, while online church services were watched by both non-Christians and people who had not attended for years. One church reported up to 1,000 people watching its services and receiving hundreds of requests for New Testaments.
Tensions and conflicts
Meanwhile, tensions and conflicts in the region continue. Turkish operations in Libya have ended General Khalifa Haftar’s 14-month campaign to capture Tripoli, the Libyan capital, and secured the UN-backed government based there. Meanwhile, Egypt, the UAE and France, who had supported Haftar, called for limits on the Turkish presence in the country. A UN enquiry revealed that eight mass graves have been found in areas previously controlled by Haftar’s militias. There are now talks between all parties involved, especially between Turkey and Russia on a ceasefire and Libya’s future direction.
Beyond Libya’s south-eastern border, a brighter future is emerging in Sudan despite an explosion of violence just twelve months ago. On 3 June 2019, over 100 demonstrators were killed, hundreds injured and 70 raped by so-called Rapid Support Forces as they broke up a peaceful sit-in in Khartoum. Revulsion at the atrocity has helped to accelerate Sudan’s steps towards democracy under a three-year transitional government formed last autumn.
One year ago, Philemon Hassan, a Sudanese pastor and worship leader, led prayers for Sudan on a SAT-7 ARABIC worship show. This year, after he appeared on the programme again, he told us that God has intervened and answered viewers’ prayers. Samuel Luak, a Sudanese pastor currently based in the UK, agreed. “People are feeling relieved,” he said. He pointed to the complete freedom Christians are now enjoying; to a government “doing the right things any government should do”; and to encouraging peace negotiations, mediated by South Sudan, with rebel groups in Darfur, South Kordofan and the Blue Nile. Although Sudan faces severe economic challenges as well as the dangers of Covid-19, Luak said it “is moving in a very positive direction”.
Concern is growing, however, about the Prime Minister of Israel’s announcement that his country will unilaterally annex up to a third of the West Bank. This will include the Israeli settlements and most of the fertile Jordan Valley. Palestinians living in the valley would not receive Israeli citizenship. We are yet to see what this will mean in full and doubts are growing as to whether it will happen on 1 July as Prime Minister Netanyahu has stated. However, there is no
doubt that the move would bury the objective of a two-state solution, put forward by Britain as long ago as 1937 and recognised by the UN ten years later. The Archbishop of Canterbury and Cardinal Vincent Nichols this month wrote to the UK Prime Minister and Israeli ambassador urging Israel not to go ahead. The King of Jordan, Israel’s eastern neighbour, is under intense pressure to block annexation, although, short of cancelling Jordan’s 1994 peace treaty with Israel, there is little he can do.
Continue to remember Lebanon in your prayers. While lockdown restrictions have eased and churches reopened, the economy is on the verge of collapse. Citizens are having to cope with a 70 per cent fall in the value of the currency and massive lay-offs accelerated by the lockdown. Protests have returned as people demand solutions and want the ruling cliques to step aside. New Prime Minister Hassan Diab is calling for patience as he seeks to inject more money into the economy and negotiate a bailout by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Meanwhile, Hezbollah is aggressively trying to increase its control, including over the central bank, even while resisting the economic reforms the IMF would require.
Heart-breaking videos have also gone viral of domestic workers being dumped outside of their embassies by their Lebanese host families. SAT-7’s You are Not Alone programme reported the case of one of the many Ethiopian women in this situation. The sponsorship (“kefala”) employment system gives workers no protection or freedom to change employers. Low wages and abuse are widespread. Pray for all domestic workers in Lebanon and the wider region as they face such dire conditions amidst the pandemic.
1 This figure was corrected on 22 June