The results of two recent elections – in Iran and Israel – are set to have a major impact on the future of the region.
In Iran, Ebrahim Raisi, the head of the country’s judiciary, will become the next president in August. Presidential elections on 18 June saw the lowest turnout since the founding of the Republic in 1979. But a list of candidates tightly vetted by Iran’s Guardian Council ensured that a conservative would win. The victory of Raisi, viewed as possible successor to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as Supreme Leader, puts hardliners firmly in control of Iran’s executive. Raisi already faces personal US sanctions over his involvement in the mass executions of political prisoners in the 1980s. He has also presided over 500 executions since becoming Chief Justice two years ago. Observers expect that a Raisi presidency will see more repression, including that of Christians and other religious minorities. Outgoing President Hassan Rouhani served two terms in office and faced many internal and external pressures, including the US withdrawal from the nuclear agreement he negotiated and severe economic sanctions on the country.
In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, the country’s longest serving prime minister, failed to form a government after four elections in two years. His combative leadership alienated many former colleagues on the Israeli right and has finally resulted in a diverse coalition that brings together religious conservatives, centrists and even a small group of Arab Islamists. Naftali Bennett, a former protégé of Netanyahu, will become prime minister for two years before handing over to centrist Yair Lapid, who now assumes the role of foreign minister.
Both governments will now face complex challenges politically, economically and regionally. Both remain in direct conflict with each other. The Israeli government is unhappy with renewed efforts to resurrect the deal to contain Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme, while Iran continues to support Hamas by providing weapons and technology for its attacks on Israel.
Mediation by Egypt, thankfully, resulted in a 20 May ceasefire in the 11-day conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. While both sides claimed victory, the destruction in the densely populated Gaza Strip was extensive. Over 1,000 homes and commercial buildings were destroyed and thousands damaged, displacing around 50,000 residents. Around 250 people in Gaza and 13 in Israel were killed. Eleanor Khoury, a Bethlehem Bible College student from Gaza, wrote that “everyone needs real psychological support” as they grieve for those who died and worry that the ceasefire might not hold. Pray for all who have been affected by this conflict.
In Turkey, a new 2,250-capacity mosque has opened on the edge of Taksim Square in Istanbul. Its location, overlooking a monument to the founding of the secular Turkish Republic, seems designed to reassert the place of religion in the commercial heart of the city. Meanwhile, the influence of Turkish nationalism was seen in government moves to shut down the pro-Kurdish HDP political party. An indictment in the constitutional court could either close or fine the third-largest party for alleged links to the militant PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) organisation. Although the HDP denies these links, the government has removed 50 HDP mayors from office and detained several MPs. The latest move seems to have been forced upon President Erdogan’s AKP party by its ally, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).
UN Permanent Security Council member countries the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia and China will be joined by Libya, Italy, Turkey, and the UAE in Berlin this week for a new round of peace talks on Libya. The war-torn country has enjoyed a measure of stability since October’s truce between the western, Tripoli-based government and its rival led by General Khalifa Haftar. Libya’s interim Prime Minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, has been able to announce the reopening of the coastal highway linking the country’s East and West. The road had been closed while Tripoli faced attacks from Haftar’s forces, backed by Russia, Egypt and France. Efforts to find a solution have been complicated by the many external players who want to have a share in Libya’s future. The Tripoli government, backed by the UN, received controversial military support from Turkey, including Syrian mercenaries. Turkey is now trying to balance its goal of supporting Libya to secure a maritime agreement in the Mediterranean with its aim of easing tensions with Egypt and reducing its isolation. Pray that the roadblocks to peace in Libya will be removed.
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In Tunisia, footage of police officers stripping and beating a young man provoked outrage and six nights of protests in the capital against police brutality. Demonstrators pointed out that police violence and impunity are unchanged since the ousting of long-standing ruler President Ben Ali in 2011. The Tunisian uprising that sparked the so-called “Arab Spring” was itself triggered when a young Tunisian, Mohamed Bouazizi, burned himself to death in protest at police violence and humiliation. Although Tunisia emerged as the only relative success story from the revolutions of the 2011 era, protests in the country in the last 12 months highlight creeping lapses in democracy, governance and freedom of expression.
Demonstrators also took to the streets in the normally quiet Gulf state of Oman at the end of May. Hundreds of young job seekers in the port city of Sohar and other towns demonstrated against unemployment brought on by austerity measures designed to ease a problem of looming debt repayments. Sultan Haitham, who acceded in January 2020, moved to cool tensions by promising to create 32,000 jobs and subsidise private companies that hire Omanis.
Lebanon’s hardships continue. The Lebanese army has appealed for funding for its forces, saying its soldiers are suffering and hungry. The Lebanese pound has now lost 90 per cent of its value.
Church leaders and church closures
Algerian pastor Fareed Laomry stresses the value of SAT-7’s programmes in the light of further church closures.
Among the churches, the region’s Anglican churches have installed two new Archbishops: Archbishop Samy Shehata will oversee the Province of Alexandria, which covers Egypt, North Africa and the Horn of Africa. Bishop Hosam Naoum, as Archbishop of Jerusalem, will be responsible for churches in Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Pray for these men as they lead and represent their part of the Christian community in a volatile region.
In Algeria, sadly, the government has issued orders to close three more churches, bringing the current number to 16. While most of the previous closures have targeted Amazigh (Berber) congregations in the Kabyle region, these are in Oran, the country’s second largest city with a majority Arab population. A SAT-7 contact said: “The members of these churches that will be closed need prayers. Pray for special grace for our children, who find it hard to understand why their churches will be shut, and for women for whom going to worship at church is their only source of support and they are otherwise very isolated. It is sad, but we believe in God’s goodness.”