While always turbulent, the Middle East this month experienced a series of curious and, in some cases, appalling incidents.
News from the region
In Syria, in a strike, apparently by Syrian or Russian jets, on a camp for internally displaced Syrians killed over 30 civilians and prompted international condemnation. IS rockets also destroyed much of a 7,000-capacity refugee camp on the Turkish and Syrian border last month. Thousands seeking to escape the carnage find themselves trapped on these borders, with both countries refusing to admit them.
In Iran, run-off elections in constituencies that did not settle elections in February’s first round resulted in a record number of women being elected as MPs. Although the 17 women will only constitute a small percentage of the 290 MPs, for the first time since 1979 women will now have more seats than clerics. Many hard-line religious leaders lost their seats and only 16 clerics were elected. This signalled a significant shift in public opinion, even though all parliamentary candidates must be vetted by the country’s religious leaders before they can run.
In Turkey, unprecedented political developments saw President Erdogan tighten his control on power after Prime Minister Ahmed Davutoglu announced he will resign later this month. He has been in office for 20 months. Under Turkey’s constitution the prime minister theoretically runs the government. But President Erdogan is determined to amend the rules to concentrate more power in the presidential office – a move Davutoglu increasingly resisted and which rings alarm bells in the light of Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian policies.
What made the development all the more intriguing is that it happened on the same day the European Commission recommended visa liberalisation for Turkish citizens to the Council of the European Union and European Parliament. The recommendation is not a done deal, though, and would give Turks the right to visit Schengen states but not to work or settle there.
It was a strange time, too, for police in Egypt to raid the press syndicate in Cairo, just days before World Press Freedom Day. Journalists critical of the government were arrested and the incident provoked unusually broad condemnation including protests from government owned newspapers. The human rights situation deteriorated further in the country over the last six months, but President Sisi declared last week that “Western” human rights values did not apply in Egypt. Meanwhile, plans continued to build a new capital city for Egypt. The latest proposal is inviting bids for a £30 billion project to establish a 700 sq km city. Doubts remain as to whether the funding will be found.
In an another unprecedented incident, hundreds of protestors stormed Baghdad’s theoretically secure Green Zone and Parliament. No fatalities were reported, but protestors ransacked some offices, assaulted parliamentarians and vandalised cars. Most of the protestors were thought to be loyalists of the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr. They have been demanding an end to corruption, to excessive spending by officials and to sectarian quotas used in appointing officials to government positions.
There was more subtle criticism of politicians in Gaza, in a new production of Romeo and Juliet. The production, which is part of the international celebrations of William Shakespeare 400 years after his death, depicted the play’s star-crossed lovers as members of families loyal to the rival political factions, Hamas and Fatah. Aware of Gaza’s bitter political infighting, director Ali Abu Yassin said, “It’s a call for love; to give a space for love and for youths to dream of a beautiful future away from the current state in Gaza, especially the youths and their suffering.”
News from the Church
Orthodox Christians celebrated the Easter across the Middle East a month later than their western brothers and sisters. While Protestants and Catholics follow the Gregorian calendar, Orthodox churches follow the Julian calendar. One beautiful Orthodox tradition is the ceremony of lights that takes place in Jerusalem, with many faithful lighting their candles and taking the fire lit in the ancient city back to their homes. SAT-7 covered Easter with a full schedule of dedicated programming, including filmed services, worship, biblical reflections and Easter films from Palm Sunday onwards.
The brutal conflict in parts of Syria continues to impact Christians alongside their fellow citizens. From Aleppo, the Aid to the Church in Need agency shared the heartbreaking words of Franciscan priest Father Ibrahim Alsabagh: “Never, since the beginning of this terrible war, were things as bad as they are now. I have no words to describe all the suffering I see on a daily basis. When the bombs do stop falling, there is an eerie silence, like in a cemetery. When will the world community finally wake up and put an end to this new Sarajevo?” In the UK, a London-based Syrian priest told The Church Times he was “furious” with the global Church for its failure to speak out against the atrocities going on in Syria. Revd Nadim Nassar is director of the Awareness Foundation which works with young people in Syria and elsewhere to train them as ambassadors for peace.
Also in the UK, Syrian Christians gathered for a symposium to mark three years since the kidnap of Aleppo Archbishops Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim – a member of SAT-7’s international council – and Paul Yazigi. A book of 100 people’s memories of Archbishop Gregorios was published to coincide with the event. Although no news has been received of the two men, SAT-7’s Nikoo Ordodary, who attended the event, said “It was a hopeful gathering. All speakers shared a little about their personal memories of Archbishop Gregorios, shed light on his mission and work as well as expressed their hope about their being still alive. They invited all attendees to keep their memory alive and pray for their freedom.”
Despite a revised constitution which commits the country to upholding religious freedom, Algerian Protestants continue to experience government pressure. A church in Mâatkas in the Kabylie province was ordered to cease all activities only two months after another fellowship in the area received similar orders. Churches are stuck in a legal bind whereby they are not allowed to use a building for non-Muslim worship without permission and without it being expressly designed for the purpose. At the same time, almost all requests to erect places of worship go unanswered. In practise most churches rent local buildings and inform the authorities of their intentions. Pray for an end to this harassment and that Christians will be able to meet in freedom.
The Briefing is provided by an independent Middle East analyst and does not necessarily reflect the views of SAT-7 UK Trust.