Public attention at home and in the Middle East and North Africa understandably turned inward in recent months as we faced the COVID-19 pandemic. But for others the pandemic has been a cover for more menacing activities.
Since January 2020 there has been a surge in attacks by so-called Islamic State (IS) groups in Syria and Iraq. Eastern areas of Syria and, to a lesser extent, Kurdish areas in the north have borne the brunt of the operations. Over 400 Syrian regime forces and pro-government militia members have been killed and some civilians have also been targeted. Iraq, too, especially the province of Diyala bordering Iran, has seen an escalation of IS guerrilla attacks. Syria’s focus on containing the coronavirus, confusion over whether US forces will remain in both countries, Turkish operations in north Syria, and Syrian and Russia activities in the northwest have combined to give IS the opening to regroup, refinance and adapt.
Afghanistan also continues to see terrorist atrocities: this week with a suicide bomber attack on a funeral and an horrific assault on a government maternity hospital run by MSF (Medécins Sans Frontières). Two babies and twelve mothers and nurses were killed in the carnage. IS claimed responsibility for the funeral attack. Other killings in the Shia area of Kabul where the hospital is located have also been attributed to them.
In Syria, fresh cracks appeared in the ruling elite circle that surrounds President Assad. Rami Makhlouf, a first cousin of the president and the business tycoon sanctioned by the European Union for bankrolling the civil war, went public on internet videos claiming his companies were being intimidated by security forces. These complaints were aired by the Russia Today channel – perhaps a sign that Moscow is weary of Syria’s leadership. Meanwhile, millions of Syrian refugees and displaced people face the threat of COVID-19 with almost no medical support or social distancing possible. A ceasefire in the northwest area of Idlib has given respite from aerial bombing but fear of the virus has led thousands to return to destroyed homes.
Protests on hold
Another result of the pandemic has been to pause large-scale public protests in Algeria, Lebanon and Iraq. Since February 2019 Algeria’s peaceful protest movement engaged millions in a call for thorough democratic reform. It brought about the fall of President Bouteflika, yet President Abdel-Majid Tebboun, elected in December, seems in no hurry to “consolidate democracy” as he promised. Arbitrary arrests of activists, students, journalists and political opponents go on as usual.
Increasingly angry protests at Lebanon’s economic collapse and at its political leaders were also halted. Yet new clashes have erupted as inflation and job losses soared further because of the pandemic. Some branches of banks that prevented depositors from withdrawing savings were set on fire. For the first time in its history, the country will this week begin negotiations with the International Monetary Fund for financial assistance.
The tens of thousands who took to the streets in Iraq because of corruption, unemployment and poor services also largely stayed away because of the virus. Some found new ways of building support through voluntary service, disinfecting streets, distributing COVID awareness literature and taking food supplies to impoverished areas.
After five months of deadlock, Iraq also installed a new Prime Minister. Mustafa al-Kadhimi, the country’s former intelligence services chief, is seen as a pragmatist and neither too close to Iran nor the West. He has taken some positive steps in ordering the release of detained protesters and promising an investigation into the violent crackdowns which saw over 400 deaths. Even so, he faces a mighty challenge to address the spreading COVID-19, a resurgent IS, social unrest and the collapse in oil prices which has holed the Iraqi budget.
Meanwhile, Iraq’s second city, Mosul, is to see restoration work begin on an historic church, funded by UNESCO and the United Arab Emirates. UNESCO said the church is important as a testimony to the religious diversity of the city. Pray that its restoration will be more than a symbolic gesture and that Christians will be free to return and live in safety in Iraq.
Iraq is not the only economy suffering from plummeting oil prices since a race began between Saudi Arabia, USA and Russia to seize chunks of the oil market. Saudi Arabia is to hike purchase tax from 5 to 15 per cent and will end an allowance that compensated state employees when the tax was introduced in 2018. The loss of revenues from oil is pushing the Crown Prince to curb some of his economic reforms and projects as he continues to face international isolation.
In Yemen, the World Health Organisation ordered staff to leave areas controlled by the Houthi rebels out of fears both for their security and over the risk of infection from the coronavirus. With some 80 per cent of the country’s population needing aid and relief and hardly any hospitals operating, Yemenis are set to face another layer of suffering since the civil war that started in 2014.
On Monday (11 May) Iran saw another tragedy when one of its own vessels was struck by “friendly fire” during a military exercise in the Gulf. Some 19 sailors were killed. The country is slowly recovering from the pandemic after it spread rapidly in the early days of the crisis. On a positive note, there are reports that Washington and Tehran are secretly negotiating the release of US prisoners Iran is holding. We hope and pray that imprisoned Christians and others, such as British citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, will also be released. She is one of a thousand foreign prisoners who have been furloughed to house arrest because of the virus.
On the issue of freedom of religion and belief (FoRB), the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) issued its annual report. Twelve of the 29 named countries of concern are in the Middle East and North Africa and are served by SAT-7 broadcasts. The report drew attention to increased repression of Christians in Algeria and recommended that the US redesignate Tajikistan as a country “of particular concern” for its increased restrictions on all religious minorities. There was progress in Egypt with a reduction in mob attacks on Christians, efforts to promote religious tolerance in the education system and a door-to-door messaging campaign promoting religious tolerance in Minya province – one of the regions that has been badly affected by sectarian attacks.
The most shining example of progress was Sudan. The transitional government led by Prime Minister Hamdok has given substantial commitments to improving religious freedom including repealing the blasphemy and apostasy laws in the near future. Christmas was also made a national holiday out of respect for the country’s large Christian minority. Give thanks for this progress and pray that these promised changes will be implemented and continue.
Finally, after three inconclusive elections in Israel, COVID-19 delivered a “national emergency unity government”. To the disapproval of many Benny Gantz supporters, his Blue and White party agreed to share power with Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud. While Israelis are relieved to have a government, the Palestinian people, again, have most to lose. The signs are that Netanyahu plans to move ahead on his promise to annexe large parts of the Occupied West Bank. European Union leaders are set to discuss sanctions if this happens as it would thwart the two-state solution and is seen as illegal under international law. The Middle East Council of Churches and World Council of Churches jointly appealed to the EU to take a “firm stance” against annexation, saying it “cannot lead to justice or to peace, but only to greater injustice, dispossession, escalating tensions and regional destabilisation”.