2015 continues to be a challenging year for the region and the church. But, faced with death, faithful Christians – and the communities they belonged to – have offered the region a radical lesson in forgiveness and human dignity.
While the brutalities of ISIS continued, there were growing preparations for military campaigns against its advances in Iraq and Syria. Two weeks ago, the US government announced it would mount a spring campaign to recover Mosul with Iraq and its partners in the region. The Iraqi army and Shiite militias launched an attack to regain Tikrit with the direct involvement of Iran. Meanwhile, Turkey sent two plane loads of military aid to the Iraqi government in Baghdad and promised assistance in the retaking of Mosul. This follows an agreement between the US and Turkey a month ago to train and equip Syrian militants against ISIS.
However, what these campaigns will achieve and what they will mean for Syria and Iraq is not too clear. All of these actors have deep vested interests in the future directions of these countries, and widely different priorities. The prospects for Iraq remain precarious thanks to the continuing Sunni and Shiite tensions, and Kurdish forces seizing more land and towns in the vacuum created by ISIS as they pursue their goal of independence. Human Rights Watch warned of serious signs of ethnic cleansing of Sunni Arabs under Kurdish controlled towns.
Meanwhile, Iran–US negotiations on nuclear enrichment continued with US officials speaking of ‘significant gaps’ in the proposed plans. The US visit of Israeli PM Netanyahu (from 2 March) was set to pressure President Obama to scale back his diplomatic talks with Iran and being seen as political campaigning for the upcoming elections in Israel. Certainly, Iran has emerged far stronger and more influential in the post-Arab Spring Middle East and a deal with the US is likely to establish it as a more prominent player in issues concerning Iraq and Syria. How far the Iranian regime will go towards stopping or scaling down its nuclear ambitions is unclear. It is widely assumed that the regime will want to keep at least the possibility of armament even if it accepts supervision on civilian use for enrichment.
The Turkish government continued to come under pressure for steps that have undermined a lot of the good reforms it has previously pursued. In the run-up towards elections in June, reports of arrests of journalists and police officers continue. The fierce clash between the AKP government and followers of charismatic preacher Fethullah Gulen has increased tensions in the country. Amidst all this, there may have been a breakthrough in negotiations with the outlawed Kurdish terror organization PKK. The organisation’s imprisoned leader Abdullah Ocalan called on members to discuss leaving arms behind and enter into mainstream political efforts. After 35 years of armed conflict and the loss of some 40,000 lives, this would be a welcome step.
A peace deal between Turkey and the PKK would also has wide regional implications. It would enable the Kurds in Iraq and Syria to build more positive relations and receive support from Turkey. This is not to overlook the very real tensions between the Kurds in Syria and Iraq nor between the PKK and leadership of the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government. These have only temporarily eased due to the threat of ISIS.
The martyrdom of 21 Egyptian Christians in Libya shook the church in the region deeply. The capture of more than 200 Syrian Christians in Hassakeh by ISIS in late February deepened fears for the future of the Church in Syria and Iraq. Christians become easy pickings in ISIS’ strategy of staging regular shows of brutality to spread fear locally and attract more fighters,
Nevertheless, the responses of Middle East Christians to these developments have been deeply moving and have given a powerful testimony to a watching world. Statements from the relatives of murdered Copts in Libya, from the Coptic clergy, and even from individual Christians sharing videos and messages on social media have all focused on forgiveness for ISIS militants – as well as paying tribute to believers who refused to renounce their faith in the face of death. SAT-7 played a significant role in spreading this message through interviews with affected Christians which subsequently went viral on social media. News outlets rightly recognised all these messages of forgiveness as exceptional. How Christians respond in such moments speaks volumes to a region that is often full of hate and revenge.
Watch clip of thanksgiving service for Egyptian Christians martyred in Lebanon
The Lord has done something beyond our dreams
At SAT-7, we were overjoyed with the news that SAT-7 TÜRK, our Turkish channel, had begun 24/7 live broadcasting on the official state satellite in Turkey. This was something we all considered to be impossible. Yet, the Lord has enabled something beyond our dreams. The Turkish team has worked tirelessly for two years, taking huge steps of faith and trusting the Lord to provide resources and skilled people to join the team. Within its first week of broadcasting, the number of viewer calls and emails rocketed and was truly encouraging. Please pray for the SAT-7 TÜRK team: they are breaking ground in a truly challenging context. Due to the reach of the satellite, they are now watched by Turkish speakers in Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia.
Remember Syrian Christians in your prayers. They find themselves surrounded by movements seeking to kill or dominate them. Many belong to the Assyrian Church of the East and – like the Armenians – fled the massacres during the World War l era in the crumbling Ottoman Empire. To face such new atrocities and once again flee for their lives is truly traumatic. In April, Armenians will mark the 100th anniversary of the genocide experienced by Ottoman Armenians. Do pray that the Lord will use this as to promote reconciliation and a greater awareness of the suffering of Middle Eastern Christians.