The images of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine have shocked us all. Footage of indiscriminate bombings of apartment blocks, hospitals and critical infrastructure, such as water and electricity hubs, assail us like flashbacks of recent events in the Middle East. What we are witnessing in Ukraine is a continuation of the devastating attacks Russia made on civilian areas of Syria when, in 2015, it began assisting President Assad’s campaign to survive and crush Syria’s rebel populations.
For many Europeans, the brutality of what happened in Syria is now too close to home. As we again see record numbers of people fleeing destruction, we might wonder if these events would have happened had the international community done more to contain the Syrian civil war, or had it acted when chemical weapons were used and Russia had begun to commit war crimes with impunity.
Russia’s attacks may have come within 15 miles of NATO territory, but the ripples of this war are also affecting the Middle East and North Africa. Among those fleeing the destruction are Middle East university students and even refugees who were previously displaced by the war in Syria. Millions more across the MENA will be affected by the threat to food supplies. Ukraine and Russia are the biggest exporters of wheat to the region. Egypt and Lebanon respectively import 70 per cent and 66 per cent of their wheat from Ukraine and the conflict has sent them scrambling for alternative sources. Syria, most of whose homegrown wheat is now in Kurdish-controlled areas, has announced wheat rationing. Tunisia and Egypt have banned exports of pasta, wheat, flour and related foods in order to maintain essential stocks at home.
Mediation and peace calls
Two countries with ties to both Russia and Ukraine have sought to mediate in the conflict. Prime Minister of Israel, Naftali Bennett, had talks with President Putin in Moscow and Turkey hosted a meeting of senior diplomats from both countries. Sadly, neither intervention appears to have had any success. Turkey, which shares a Black Sea maritime border with Russia, is treading very cautiously, condemning the Russian invasion but without following the West in imposing sanctions.
“Our eyes are on the suffering Ukrainian church. We are suffering with them,” SAT-7 presenter Volkan Er said in a discussion in an episode of the weekly Worldview faith and current affairs programme on SAT-7’s Turkish language channel.
Leaders of the Middle Eastern Church have also made urgent calls for peace. “We address another plea to end the war now. To immediately stop any act of violence, anything that spreads pain and death,” said Bartholomew l, the Istanbul-based leader of the world’s Eastern Orthodox Christians. In Lebanon, Patriarch Al-Rahi, said, “The Church constantly calls: No to war! Yes to peace… We pray for the war to stop as a mercy to the innocent and for an end to the destruction, killing and displacement.” Beirut-based Evangelical NGO, the Lebanese Society for Educational and Social Development, said, “Our hearts break for the people of Ukraine.” It announced that it has sent aid and declared its help for vulnerable people in the Middle East who will also be affected by the war’s “aftermath”.
Another repercussion from the Ukraine war has been the effect on nuclear enrichment talks with Iran. Recent months had produced promising signs that a new deal could be reached for Iran to limit its nuclear enrichment plans and not develop nuclear weapons. This was an attempt to revive the 2015 deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Yet talks hit a fresh impasse last week when Russia, a signatory to the accord, told Washington it will not support an agreement unless it is exempt from Ukraine-related sanctions.
In the middle of this, Iran chose this week to fire a dozen missiles into Iraqi Kurdistan’s city of Erbil, hitting targets very close to the US consulate. The Iranian government declared that it had hit Israeli facilities, although many saw this as part of ongoing attacks on US personnel, as a way of forcing it out of Iraq for good.
From Saudi Arabia came shocking news of 81 executions in a single day (12 March). All were men sentenced to a range of crimes including terrorism. Saudi Arabia has faced intense criticism over the years due to its executions. The news came amidst a push in the US and Europe to rebuild bridges with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman who has been shunned since the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate. The change in relations has been driven by hopes that Saudi Arabia will increase oil production to counter rocketing energy prices – another result of the war in Ukraine and wide dependence on Russian supplies.
One government that appeared out of step with others was the ruling council in Sudan. General Hamdan Dagalo, the deputy head of the government that removed civilian members of the transitional government last October, visited Moscow to sign an agreement that will allow Russia a naval base near Port Sudan. The move was driven by Khartoum’s need for economic aid after the West cut support following the 25 October coup.
On the streets of Sudan, medics say that more than 80 people have been killed by security forces in anti-coup protests that have continued over the last four months. On International Women’s Day (8 March) crowds gathered outside the presidential palace shouting “long live the Kandakas!”, the name for Sudan’s ancient Nubian queens. This was in recognition of women demonstrators who played a prominent role in the rallies that removed President al-Bashir in 2019.
House church Christians acquitted
Iran watchers took heart from an Appeal Court ruling (28 February) that overturned the conviction of nine Christians from the city of Rasht. The review had been ordered in a surprise decision by the Supreme Court in November. This judged that meeting in a house church and Christian evangelism did not constitute “gathering and collusion against internal or external security”, the basis on which many Christians have been sentenced. The subsequent ruling said that “the defendants, according to the teachings of Christianity, worshipped and praised in the house-church, and there was no positive evidence to validate the crime of acting against the security of the country”. However, Mansour Borji, Director of human rights organisation, Article 18, cautioned against expecting consistency in future cases. Only one day after the nine were acquitted, another believer serving a 10-year sentence for a similar offence had his appeal summarily dismissed.
In neighbouring Iraq there was both positive and tragic news for the Christian community. A state committee announced the return of over 120 properties that had been expropriated by gangs to Christians and to Iraq’s indigenous Sabean minority. The committee said it hoped to see the “prompt return” to Iraq of Christians and other minorities after the return of these lands and buildings.
Christian influencer murdered
In Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, however, church leaders called for prayer after the murder of a 20-year-old Christian convert. The body of Iman Sami, the daughter of a Muslim cleric, was found on 7 March after she posted a TikTok video in which she sang Christian worship songs. Iman, who had been preparing to be baptised, was a young activist in women’s rights whose social media posts were followed by hundreds of thousands, according to Christian news site Ankawa Today. The report said she had been subjected to an early marriage at the age of 12 but had separated and was living alone.
Algeria continues to prosecute Christians for the free exercise of their religious beliefs. A verdict earlier this week brings to 12 the number of Christians who have been sentenced to prison and fines in the last 18 months. SAT-7’s Arabic Channels Director, George Makeen, asked for urgent prayer that sentences will be overturned in appeal hearings. “We at SAT-7 are committed to keep praying for Algerian Christians, to raise awareness of the situation, and to amplify the voice of the Algerian Church,” Makeen said. “We want everyone to know how faithful these people are to their country; how they are keen to see it peaceful and prospering; and how they pray for the good of all.”
Authorities have also held back a large shipment of Bibles since October, despite a licence of importation agreed by the Ministry of Religious Affairs. The Bible Society of Algeria asks us to pray for its early release.
Finally, as the Persian world approaches its new year (“Nowruz”) on 20 March, the Taliban administration in Afghanistan has promised to reopen its secondary schools for girls. Please pray for this.
This report updated 18 March 2022
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