Spring is around the corner! On 21 March many Middle Eastern communities will mark the Norouz new year festival, an ancient day shared by many as the start of the Spring and a time of hope and renewal. Yet the region feels further from renewal than it was even a year ago.
By the end of last year, we thought that we had seen the worst of the war in Syria. Large swathes are enjoying relative peace under the control of the Syrian state itself, Kurdish-led forces or other groups. But the intensity of the indiscriminate shelling and bombing of rebel-held Eastern Gouta by Russian and government forces has been shocking even by the standards of this seven-year conflict. Over 1,100 civilians have been killed since the Syrian government intensified its bombardment in February. Rebel (mainly Islamist) forces also stepped up their indiscriminate shelling of nearby Damascus, including the ancient Christian district of Bab Touma. There, a school and church headquarters have been hit repeatedly, on one occasion killing seven children.
Meanwhile, another crisis is developing in Afrin, Northern Syria. NATO allies Turkey and the USA almost came head to head in confrontation last month. Turkey’s anger at the US arming of majority Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces in the area and its reply – launching a military operation against the Kurdish-controlled Afrin region –continues to risk further confrontation. The lives and safety of around 350,000 civilians in Afrin are now at risk. After retaking villages, Turkey has launched a major ground offensive to take Afrin itself. Turkish forces and its Syrian militia allies claim to have encircled the city. A report in The Independent indicates that Turkish-backed forces include former Islamic State members, while several reports say Syrian forces are asking families to pay thousands of dollars for safe passage into government-held areas. Another Syrian city seems on the brink of an intense urban conflict.
The complexity of the Syria war was also highlighted last month when Syrian air defence systems downed an Israeli jet and an Iranian drone entered Israeli airspace. In retaliation, Israel launched a wave of attacks on Syrian air defence sites. Israel is increasing its involvement in Syria to counter what it see as a growing Iranian and Hezbollah presence, posing a direct threat to its security. While Russia and Iran steadfastly bolster the Syrian government to pursue their strategic interests, the US continues to focus on defeating Islamic State and worries that Kurdish militias are abandoning this struggle for the fight against Turkey. Amidst all these concerns, and the January peace talks called by Russia, Turkey and Iran, the interests of Syrian people themselves are pushed to the back of the queue.
Saudi prince visits UK and Egypt
This month, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, made his first official visit to the UK, and met with Prime Minister Theresa May and received an audience with the Queen. A public relations campaign highlighting the Prince’s reforms in Saudi Arabia failed to drown out critics, however. UK opposition politicians called for an immediate end to the bombing campaign in Yemen and criticised other aspects of the Prince’s foreign policy. The Prime Minister’s office countered by saying she had raised her “deep concerns at the humanitarian situation in Yemen”. Some saw positive signs in bin Salman’s recent decision to replace defence officials, believing these could signal a possible change in Saudi policies and engagement in Yemen.
Before arriving in the UK, the Prince spent three days in Egypt. Interestingly, while there he met with the Coptic Orthodox Pope, Tawadros II. The visit by a Saudi high-level official to the Coptic Church was an historic first. The symbolic meeting is another reminder that the Crown Prince is truly shaking the tree of traditional Saudi views and ways of doing things. Despite the grave humanitarian crisis in Yemen his actions have created, there seems to be a broad acceptance that some of his changes are probably for the better of the country and the region.
Egypt also witnessed the dedication of a substantial new church in the Upper Egyptian village of Al-Aour, home to 13 of the 21 Christians beheaded by Islamic State in Libya in 2015. The new church had been authorised by President Al-Sisi in the wake of the atrocity. In a packed dedication service, the faces of the 21 Christian martyrs – including one Ghanaian – were prominently displayed as the local Coptic bishop paid tribute to their example “to hold on to our faith and to Christ regardless of circumstances”. Meanwhile, some 1,300 of Egypt’s Evangelical church leaders – pastors and church workers – met for four days of fellowship and teaching in the second annual Thousand Leaders Gathering, televised by SAT-7.
Church closures in Algeria
Encouragement for the Church in Algeria has been thin on the ground more recently. In what appears to be a national campaign, three churches belonging to the 45-member Protestant Church of Algeria have been closed by authorities and 25 others have received official inspections. The World Evangelical Alliance called on Algeria to safeguard the religious freedom guaranteed in the country’s constitution. Algeria’s Protestant churches were granted government recognition in 2011 and have seen rapid growth, especially among Berber/Amazigh people in the north of the country.
In neighbouring Libya, the ethnic Amazigh population (estimated at 10 to 15 per cent of the total) is demanding greater recognition. Under Gadhafi’s regime, their traditions and language, Tamazight, were banned. Today, they can speak Tamazight but the National Transitional Council (the post-Gadhafi administration) has only allocated them two out of 60 parliamentary seats. So Amazighs are threatening to boycott parliamentary elections and a referendum on a new constitution.
In Iran, numbers of women took to the streets to protest against the country’s compulsory headscarf laws. Video clips showed demonstrators across the country removing their scarves in public. Police in Tehran arrested 29 women demonstrators. The move follows a relaxation in enforcement of the religious dress code under President Rouhani. Authorities recently announced that women driving with improper head coverings would receive a relatively small fine rather than face arrest.
In Israel, we saw the unprecedented decision by the churches in Jerusalem to close the Holy Sepulchre Church to visitors as part of a protest. The churches were reacting against the decision of the mayor of Jerusalem to tax church properties and demand some $185 million in unpaid revenue – a move that breaks the historic tax-free status of the churches. For now, the Jerusalem municipality seems to have backed down from this.
In Turkey, there is still no news on the case of US pastor Andrew Brunson, who has been detained since the coup attempt in 2016 following a false accusation that he was part of the plot to overthrow the government. His health has not been good, and he seems to have been made a bargaining chip in the historic breakdown of relations between the US and Turkey. Please remember him, his wife, Norrine, and three children in your prayers.