A British intelligence officer has reportedly said he stopped counting the complex layers that form current Middle East tensions after he got to seven. A further combustible layer was added this month by Russia’s military intervention in Syria.
Russia’s entrance into the ever-thickening complexity of the Syria war has put everyone on edge. President Putin has always been a supporter of the Assad regime, providing arms and technical advisers. But his decision to send in fighter jets and unleash cruise missiles to shore up the regime took everyone off guard. Debates among the US and its allies over enforcing a no-fly zone were suddenly made redundant. Russia claimed its jets would be used against so-called Islamic State targets, yet the US said 90 per cent of strikes had targeted non-IS opposition groups thereby reinforcing Assad’s crumbling army. Under Russian cover and with Iranian support, Syria has now launched its largest ground offensive against rebel groups. The prospect of two air campaigns aimed at different targets – US-led forces against IS and Russian against other rebels – also set the scene for a larger international crisis.
For Turkey, things are more complex than ever. The country went from being an oasis of calm two years ago to a retreat from democratic reforms and the breakdown of peace with the Kurdish militant PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) organisation. Attacks by the PKK since July claimed the lives of over 160 Turkish soldiers and security personnel, while the Turkish military claims to have killed hundreds of militants. When PKK militants dug trenches in a dozen or so Kurdish-majority towns in South Eastern Turkey and declared independence, the government sent in thousands of troops. The army’s heavy-handed response included curfews imposed for days on end. A number of civilian casualties died through PKK booby-trap bombs or in crossfire with the army. As the country heads to a rerun of parliamentary elections on 1 November, many expect a repeat of the June results without any decisive winner. If so, a coalition government would create continued uncertainty and leave parliament in a weak position to pursue peace efforts with the separatists.
There were glimmers of hope for Yemen when Houthi rebels confirmed their commitment to a seven-point UN plan calling them to halt violence, withdraw from captured areas and cease undermining political transition in the country. The recent conflict has claimed some 4,000 lives and left its people on the brink of famine. It remains to be seen whether Yemen’s exiled President Said and the Saudi-led coalition will come to the peace table.
While extensive conflict elsewhere has tended to overshadow Israel-Palestine tensions, worrying reports are now prompting some to fear that a third widespread Palestinian uprising could be in the wings. There has been an escalation of clashes in East Jerusalem between Israeli police and Palestinian protestors, partly over access to and control of the Al Aqsa Mosque. There have also been a series of terror attacks on Jewish settlers by Palestinians and operations by Israeli forces in retaliation. The Israeli government remains as hawkish as ever on the issues surrounding the Palestinians and continues to push ahead with new settlements on Palestinian land. A long-term solution seems as distant as it has ever been.
Meanwhile, the region’s refugee crisis continues unabated. More than 5,000 people are thought to have perished in the Mediterranean this year, attempting to cross into Europe. European states seem to have been caught napping as Syria’s neighbours made clear they could no longer cope with hosting 4 million Syrian exiles. Last week, the European Union and Turkey met formally to discuss what can be done. The EU is offering an increase in funding towards refugees in Turkey,Lebanon and Jordan, and funding tighter border controls. But national interests within the union have hindered a consensus on what to do with those who have already arrived.
While tensions in Turkey impact everyone, Christians included, there has also been good news. A Greek Christian Middle and High School were reopened after being closed for some 40 years. Although the school is tiny and will have only 10 students to start with, it is a positive sign as well as a sad reminder that Turkey once hosted a very substantial Greek Christian community.
Sadly, there were reports that one of the very last churches in Yemen, St Joseph’s Catholic Church, was attacked and burnt down. The church was used by expatriate believers from Africa, other Middle East countries and South Asia. Another church in the country was damaged in Saudi bombing campaigns earlier this year. More happily, a report detailed how a small fellowship of 35 Ethiopian Christians and some 80 or so others fled Yemen’s bombing safely by crossing to Djibouti and then being flown home by the Ethiopian government. Yet it is sad to see how the few remaining traces of Christian witness in Yemen are disappearing.
We reported last month that Christians in Israel were calling for funding equality with Jewish religious schools after Israeli authorities made severe cuts to their budgets. Over 30,000 Palestinian Christian school children stayed away from classes when the school year began in protest. At the end of September, the Israeli government announced it would make a one-off payment to Christian schools to meet the immediate shortfall and a joint committee will be formed to study options for the long term. Christians in Israel continue to face challenges, particularly Messianic Jews, and any attempts by Christians to share their faith with Jews are attracting increasing opposition.
In Iran, President Rouhani offered to release dual American and Iran citizens as part of a prisoner exchange with the US, which would include Pastor Saeed Abedini. Sadly, such a linking of his imprisonment with other conversations with the US actually complicates and hinders his case: he is not a US official nor a spy, but a Christian pastor suffering for his faith.
In Egypt, a new opportunity for Christians has opened up through an interesting agreement between the Egyptian Ministry of Water Resources and the Coptic Orthodox Church. This gives the Church a role in talks with Ethiopia over the use of River Nile as both a cultural and religious bridge with the Christian majority in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian and Egyptian Coptic Churches come from the same family of churches and historically shared a far closer relationship. The agreement includes a programme to train some 500 Christians to be “water ambassadors” to spread a message of protection and careful use of the Nile River.