While a partial ceasefire in Syria has been the main story in the region, moves to recognise the extremist targeting of Christians and other religious minorities as genocide could lead to greater protection and easier asylum for those fleeing jihadists.
News from the region
A partial ceasefire in Syria, brokered by Russia and the US, finally came into force at the end of February. This week, the UK, France and Germany scheduled a formal meeting with Russia’s President Putin. The goal is to ensure that the ceasefire is upheld and that exemptions allowing continued operations against so-called Islamic State (IS) and the Al-Nusra Front are not used against non-jihadist opposition groups. While the pause in the conflict has allowed humanitarian aid to reach a number of towns under siege, it would be optimistic to believe the ceasefire will last. A new round of UN talks between all sides in Geneva has already been postponed as stakeholders cannot even agree on who should attend.
Two important sets of elections were held in Iran – one for the parliament and the other for the Assembly of Experts, a clerical body that plays key roles in creating legislation and in choosing the Supreme Leader. Many commentators took heart from the gains made by reformers and moderates in parliament and the failure of some hardliners to keep their seats in the Assembly of Experts. But others pointed to the barring of promising reformist candidates and reminded us that a number of reformers remain under arrest or in exile. With more moderates in parliament the Rouhani government is likely to receive more support for the promising steps it has taken in terms of normalising relations with Europe and the US and agreeing to curb its nuclear enrichment programme. However, critics argue that Iran has shown little enthusiasm for change other than encouraging foreign investment and the lifting of sanctions. The position of the ailing Supreme Leader who said before the elections that he wanted a parliament that would stand up to the West also sends a sign warning not to expect rapid change.
In Turkey, the collapse of peace talks with outlawed PKK (Kurdish independence) militants has led to violence and tensions approaching the level of the 1990s. At that time conflict led to the displacement of almost a million people within the country. Over the last 35 years, some 40,000 lives have been lost. Realistic hopes of a settlement in 2013-2014 now seem impossible in the near future.
Turkey’s domestic tensions also created serious implications for Syria and international efforts to contain IS. Across the border, YPG Syrian Kurdish militias linked to the PYD (Syrian Kurdish political party) expanded their territorial gains against IS under US and Russian air support. But they also took land as they overcame Syrian opposition groups that have support from the US-led coalition (including Turkey). Turkey responded by shelling Kurdish targets to cut off the corridor that connects rebel-dominated Syrian areas with Turkey.
Nor is there any sign of things calming down in Yemen or Libya. Some nine months have passed since Saudi Arabia-backed forces loyal to former president Saleh began a civil war with Iran-backed Houthis in a bid to restore power to President Mansour Hadi. Meanwhile, the US has been using drones to target Al Qaeda bases in the country. In Libya, as IS moves to plant deeper roots in the country the US and allies have mounted air attacks, including one that is thought to have killed the extremist behind two terror attacks on tourists in Tunisia last year.
The increased levels of persecution of Christians, especially in the Middle East brought about an historic meeting last month between the heads of the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox Church. The meeting in Cuba between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill was the first between heads of the two churches since they broke off communion almost 1,000 years ago. They made a joint declaration calling upon the international community to “act urgently in order to prevent the further expulsion of Christians from the Middle East”.
Meanwhile, in the UK a group within the House of Lords proposed an amendment to the Immigration Bill to allow for automatic asylum to the victims of Genocide.
Examples of such inhumanity are not hard to find. In Yemen last week, four nuns were among 16 murdered by gunmen in an attack on a Catholic retirement home in Aden run by Mother Teresa’s charity. The Vatican condemned this as an act of “senseless and diabolical violence”.
In Egypt, three Coptic Christian teenagers have been sentenced to jail for 5 years for producing a video mocking IS. The mobile phone video shows a Coptic teenager pretending to be praying like a Muslim. It was this which led the court to find them guilty of “contempt of Islam and inciting sectarian strife”. Maher Naguib, the defendants’ lawyer told SAT-7’s current affairs programme, Bridges, that the video was taken out of context and the court was not shown the part that was meant to mock IS.
In Turkey, city officials in Bursa gave four church congregations orders to vacate an historic church managed by the local government. The 200 worshippers who use the building were initially given a week to find alternative premises, apparently after a group within the city council opposed renewal of the lease. Negotiations on behalf of the churches, however, resulted in a reversal of the decision eight days later. Ismail Kulakcioglu, the pastor of the Protestant congregation, said that he and the local government considered Turkey to be a “cultural mosaic”, and they “did not want to see this mosaic smashed to pieces”.