A long-contested enclave on the fringe of the Middle East hit the headlines this month as a new upsurge of fighting claimed at least 300 lives in Nagorno–Karabakh.
This mountainous enclave (known as Artsakh by Armenians) neighbours Iran, is near neighbour to Turkey, Russia and Georgia, and sits between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Despite its majority Armenian population, it was made an autonomous zone within Azerbaijan when both states came under Russian control in the 1920s. There have been cycles of clashes since the collapse of the Soviet Union and a 1988 decision by the enclave to become as an independent republic. Full-scale fighting between 1992 and 1994 killed tens of thousands and displaced almost 100,000. Although Russia brokered a ceasefire, no peace agreement has been signed. The enclave remains under ethnic Armenian control.
Since the 1990s most stakeholders, including Russia, have let the conflict remain “frozen” with occasional flare-ups. However, with Turkey offering “unlimited support” to Azerbaijani operations and new drone technologies acquired by Azerbaijan from Israel and Turkey, this latest escalation shows no sign of de-escalation despite a ceasefire negotiated by Moscow. Azerbaijan appears determined to gain control of as much of its claimed territory as possible and Armenians have mobilised nationally and globally to stop it. The Red Cross has documented reports of indiscriminate shelling by both Azerbaijan and Armenia into towns and cities far from contested areas.
Pray for peace in this part of the Caucasus: its intrinsic links to the Middle East might not be obvious at first, but it is a crisis that entangles Russia, Turkey, Iran, as well as the Armenian and Azeri diasporas across the Middle East, Europe and North America. Many are seeking to gain wider support by pitching this as a battle between Islam and Christianity, which thankfully is untrue. Pray for an immediate ceasefire, and for moral courage by leaders of both countries and their external backers to find compromises that will establish sustainable solutions to this conflict.
In some rare good news, we see a record number of Christians running in the elections for the House of Deputies in the Egyptian parliament. It comes amid a continuation of positive messages from President Sisi on protecting the country’s Christian community. Egypt hosts one of the oldest and largest Christian communities in the region. Copts constitute some 10 per cent of the country’s population. In previous elections, some Christian candidates were barred from running or forced to withdraw due to threats of violence. Attacks and pressure on Copts continue, especially in rural areas, but this positive development is very welcome.
In Iran, pressure on Christians, especially those who convert from Islam, continues. Middle East Concern has reported the heartbreaking case of new Christian parents, Sam Khosravi and Maryam Falahi, losing the custody of their adopted daughter, Lydia. The couple were arrested in 2019 for being members of a house church and only released after paying some $25,000 each (an example of the extortionate sums Iran often asks Christians to pay for temporary release). The appeal court ignored statements by two top Islamic leaders that said it was “permissible” for Lydia to be adopted by Christian converts because of the child’s health conditions and attachment to the couple. One observer noted that the judge showed sympathy for the family’s situation but seemed to have been coerced by government intelligence officials. Please ask the Lord to intervene in this situation and that the family will be able to live safely together.
Christians in Algeria are calling for prayer this week, a year after the forced closure of the country’s largest Evangelical churches among the indigenous Kabyle (Berber) people. Over the last two years authorities shut down some 19 worship places belonging to the 45-member Association of Protestant Churches. The 1,200-member Full Gospel Church in Tizi-Ouzou, whose services were transmitted by SAT-7, was sealed by police on 14 October last year. Algerian believers have called for an International Day of Prayer for the Christians of Algeria on 18 October.
The Economist has reported that millions of people in Yemen are facing starvation. According to the UN, “hunger as a weapon of war” is used by both the Saudi-backed government and Iran-backed Houthi rebels, as they disrupt food and water distribution. Saudi coalition airstrikes and Houthi shelling have also escalated around the port city of Hodeidah, one of the ports of entry for food imports. Now with fast spreading COVID-19 and a rusting oil tanker about to spill some 1.1m barrels of oil, the suffering of the people of Yemen seems unending.
Elsewhere in the Gulf, Kuwait has a new head of state. After the death of Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah (aged 91) last month, his brother, Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf has replaced him as Emir. Sheikh Sabah had long experience as a foreign minister. Thanks to his diplomacy, the state’s non-aligned political position and policy of religious tolerance, Kuwait was able to avoid the Sunni-Shia tensions prevalent elsewhere and be an important mediator in the region. The signs are that this will continue under the new Emir and new Crown Prince Meshal, who is likely to exercise a major role in domestic and foreign policy.
In the Levant region, a heatwave has triggered wildfires in Syria, Lebanon and Israel. In Syria, dozens of fires have ravaged farmland in the coastal provinces of Latakia and Tartous and the inland province of Homs. A hospital in Qardahah, the hometown of President Assad, was reported to be surrounded by flames. Lebanon also reported that 80 per cent of the fire force was mobilised as hundreds of fires burned in the Chouf mountains in the south and Akkar in the north. Israel, too, was forced to evacuate 5,000 people as fires spread there.
Israel and Iran – rarely at one on matters – have found themselves battling a common enemy. The coronavirus forced Israel to begin a second national lockdown at the start of the Jewish New Year (18 September), while Iran experienced a third wave of the virus and a record rate of daily infections.
A second wave of the virus is also compounding hardship in Lebanon. Twelve months ago, mass cross-sectarian protests calling for political change seemed a sign of hope in a country that had grown weary of political corruption and inefficiency. The positive signs have vanished, however, in the face of political intransigence, an economy in freefall, banks withholding savings, jobs lost to COVID-19, and – two months ago – the most severe non-nuclear explosion to hit a country. Although President Macron of France made visits to urge leaders to take steps that would unlock international investment, progress has been blocked. Iran-backed Hezbollah, the most dominant force in parliament, is said to be most resistant. Some Lebanese have already joined the ranks of the world’s desperate migrants, boarding leaky boats in perilous attempts to flee the region. Pray for Lebanon: for justice, good governance, an end to corruption, and for all those who are trying to help the struggling and build a fairer society.
Religious freedom in the spotlight
SAT-7 and the Conservative Christian Fellowship recently brought together politicians and Middle East Christians to discuss the promotion of freedom of belief in Iran and other MENA countries. Read report