It has been a month of startling moves and developments that will have a seismic impact in the region.
Four major developments dominated the news this month. Firstly, the official opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem (14 May). When President Trump first announced this last December, some saw it as a political move for domestic voters that would, nevertheless, be kicked into the long grass. Successive US presidents had postponed the move since Congress first voted in 1995 to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv. To implement this promise, observers felt, would render the future role of the US as a neutral peace broker impossible and could trigger a new Palestinian uprising, provoke regional instability and deepen the growing rift between the US and Europe. And yet, it has happened. Despite strong opposition from US allies and the Muslim world, the opening was brought forward to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the declaration of the State of Israel. The opening happened against the backdrop of mass protests on the border of Gaza by Palestinians who are marking 70 years of displacement and protesting against the Israeli blockade. Israeli forces’ use of live rounds on protesters resulted in at least 58 Palestinian deaths and 2,000 wounded on this one day alone, fuelling international criticism.
Secondly, after a long period of consideration, President Trump announced his decision on whether to continue US participation in the deal reached between Iran and what is called P5 + 1 (5 permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) on the Iranian nuclear enrichment programme. Official international observers, as well as the EU, stated that Iran was abiding by the agreement which is one of the most robust of its kind with substantial checks. So President Trump’s decision to withdraw entirely from the deal came as a shock and triggered alarm in European countries that had invested years in negotiations and will lose substantially if the US applies sanctions on companies trading with Iran. Other signatories have signified their resolve to continue with the accord. Analysts agree that the US pull out is not going to trigger an immediate decision by Iran to pursue its enrichment programme and seek nuclear weapons, but more complex regional and international problems are set to emerge.
Thirdly, Iran and Israel came very close to a direct military confrontation when Israel struck multiple Iranian bases in Syria, apparently after Iranian forces fired a barrage of missiles at the Golan Heights. This came after a visit by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to Moscow. Commentators saw this as Israel and Russia agreeing on red lines; Russia seemingly content that Iran’s forces are contained so long as Israel does not seek to topple Syrian President Assad. Israel has legitimate concerns over the growing Iranian military presence in Syria and has vowed that it will not allow any permanent military build-up. While it is unlikely that either Iran or Israel want to be at war with each other, words like “regime change” promoted in the US now, and Iran’s significant military presence in Syria create the potential for a perfect storm to emerge.
Fourthly, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan took both the opposition and the world by surprise by announcing snap general and presidential elections as early as 24 June, a year and a half ahead of schedule. Last year, the Turkish public voted narrowly in favour of shifting the country into a presidential system in which executive powers are transferred to the president and the office of prime minister disappears. Critics questioned how much opposition candidates would have a fair opportunity to campaign while Turkey continues under a state of emergency.
Most assume that President Erdogan is likely to emerge as the victor from the elections, but nervousness about his party’s chance to win the required 51 per cent of the vote has led them to form an alliance with the Nationalist Action party. However, Turkish opposition parties have also been engaging in some creative collaboration. This has included forming a coalition of the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) with three smaller parties – thereby increasing their chance to win seats in parliament under a proportional representation system that reallocates the votes of any party that gains less than 10 per cent of electoral support. The rising star of the Turkish economy has become very vulnerable of late and is stagnating and regressing. While the outcome of this election might be no surprise, the next few years could be more difficult for President Erdogan than he has been accustomed to.
Upset in Iraq
A further shock came from national elections in Iraq. Expectations that Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi would continue in post were overturned as the count began. The final result is due on Wednesday (16 May) but Abadi appears to have shown poorly with Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr looking set to win the largest share of the votes. Al-Sadr, who led anti-US militias after the 2003 invasion, stood on a nationalist platform in an unlikely alliance with the Communist Party. If he emerges first in the final vote, the result will show a rejection of the influence of both the US and Iran (which supported Hadi al-Ameri, who led Iran-backed militias in the fight against so-called Islamic State). The low turnout and unexpected results are also a sign of anger at Iraqi establishment politicians and at corruption. Forming a coalition government, however, will be a lengthy challenge and if Sadr’s alliances don’t hold, another candidate could yet become prime minister.
Lebanon saw the first parliamentary elections for nine years, for the first time under a proportional representation system. Civil society activists hoped this would open the country’s multi-party system up to reformers to challenge the entrenched political elites. However, they were disappointed when only one candidate belonging to a new coalition of civil society groups was elected. The big news of the day, however, was that Prime Minister Said Hariri’s Future Party lost seats in its three strongholds to Hezbollah-backed Sunni candidates. Despite this, commentators expect Hariri to continue as Prime Minister of a national coalition government. Iran’s influence via Hezbollah remains a strong concern for neighbouring Israel.
On the Church front, the region’s Christians continue to seek opportunities to bear witness to Christ amidst all the changing political tides and tensions. In Turkey, a pastor told us that several hundred Christians travelled to the island of Buyukuda, near Istanbul, to pray with some of the tens of thousands of non-Christian visitors the island attracts every year on St George’s Day (23 April). The visitors process up a 200-metre hill to the Orthodox monastery, tying their prayers and wishes to trees in the hope that they will be answered. Turkish Christians took advantage of this tradition by offering to pray personally for the visitors, by singing worship songs and offering Christian literature.
Meanwhile, Andrew Brunson, the US pastor who has led a congregation in Izmir for 23 years, had a second court hearing (7 May), 10 months after being arrested on false charges in connection with the purges that followed Turkey’s failed coup. Mr Brunson again appealed for his release and denied the allegations of three secret witnesses who accused him of helping the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the network of U.S.-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen. A US observer at the hearing said, “Eleven hours of proceedings were dominated by wild conspiracies, tortured logic, and secret witnesses”. Brunson was sent back to prison and the case postponed until another hearing in July. Please pray for him.
In Egypt, a Coptic Christian schoolteacher was more fortunate. High school teacher Magdy Farag Samir, was arraigned on charges of contempt for religion after including some puns in a multiple choice questionnaire on the Prophet Muhammad. The false answers were designed to help students choose the correct answers but were viewed by some students and parents as insulting. A human rights lawyer said that Egypt’s contempt of religion law is regularly used against Copts but is never used to prevent hate speech against Christians.