Sunday 10 October marked the tenth anniversary of the martyrdom of 24 Coptic Christians in Egypt in 2011. They were killed during a demonstration by hundreds of Copts against increasing attacks on churches and the lack of any measures by the state to halt them. The peaceful protest outside the Maspero television building was confronted by armoured vehicles that rammed into the crowds while others were shot with live ammunition.
Multiple state-run channels ran reports claiming that Coptic Christians were attacking the army with weapons and asked “honourable citizens to defend the army against attack”. There were no Christians with weapons attacking soldiers, and to this day no one has faced justice over their deaths.
The Maspero demonstration came after the “Arab Spring” protests that began early in 2011 with such optimism for change. In many ways the issues that led to this movement remain. People protested for dignity in the face of corruption and poor governance, for a future for themselves and their families and freedom from brutal abuses of power. Sadly, little has changed.
Afghanistan continues to make headline news as the world watches to see what a Taliban Mark 2 government will mean. Christians and others continue to message SAT-7 as they either fear for their lives or see that they can no longer serve in vital professional roles. A former judge told us, “Everything has been turned upside down overnight. All [government] departments, including law and land services, have been taken over by the group that embodies ignorance and terror.” Maneli, a female viewer, messaged us: “I am very grateful that you are speaking with us and are giving us hope. We still have access to the internet and satellite, but we don’t know how long this will continue.”
In attempts to address the country’s humanitarian crisis and prevent it from becoming an incubator for terrorist groups, UK and US diplomats last week had face-to-face meetings with Taliban leaders. The malevolent presence of the local Islamic State affiliate was demonstrated in a suicide bombing at a Shia mosque that killed at least 50 worshippers.
In Lebanon, the country’s energy supply shut down completely for 24 hours last weekend after the country’s two main power stations stopped operations because they could not afford fuel. The central bank has stepped in to offer credit to keep supplies going, but even with that, most of the population receive just one or two hours of electricity a day. Last month, truckloads of fuel arrived from Iran while the new Lebanon government has arranged a swap deal for fuel with Iraq. It is also negotiating electricity supplies from Jordan and gas from Egypt, although these deals are likely to take months. Thankfully, SAT-7’s Beirut studio, which together with our Cairo studio serves the Arab world, has continued operations with its own generator.
A significant chapter in the history of Algeria has closed with the death of Abdelaziz Bouteflika (17 September), who served as president for some 20 years. In 2019, he was forced to resign when mass protests greeted the news that he would run for a fifth time, despite being well into his 80s and partially immobilised by a stroke. After this, his powerful businessman brother was arrested along with others on corruption charges. Public discontent has continued, however, as educated younger people seek greater political participation and see the same elites, including the army, in control.
Hard times for Algeria’s Church
Sadly, Algerian Christians have also seen the death of one of their pastors from COVID-19. Hamou Maloum, age 42 and one of the preachers on SAT-7’s My Church in Algeria broadcasts, is survived by his wife and two sons. Please pray for the Algerian Church. The meeting places of 16 Protestant congregations have now been forcibly closed by the authorities for two years and four others have been told to cease activities.
SAT-7 producer Samia Kessai says, “The church is not coping well. Many believers, including children, are struggling through lack of fellowship”. The lack of teaching has also resulted in a high number of divorces. Samia added that Algerians in general are struggling because of deteriorating economic conditions that have been exacerbated by the pandemic and the summer’s forest fires. SAT-7’s suite of worship, testimony, magazine and children’s programmes in the Kabyle dialect remain an essential source of encouragement for Algeria’s mainly Amazigh (Berber) Christians.
In Tunisia, once hailed as the success story of the “Arab Spring”, thousands of Tunisians took to the streets again to protest against President Kais Saied. His critics view his seizure of control, suspension of parliament and dismissal of the prime minister as a coup. He has also suspended the constitution while promising a referendum for changes to it. Former President Moncef Marzouki asked people to protest in defence of democracy and national sovereignty. Many fear that these protests and the President’s power grab will take the country to a more precarious place.
Last weekend citizens in Iraq voted in a parliamentary election for the first time since 2019. Turnout, at around 41 per cent, was just half that of the country’s first free election in 2005, howerver. Although the process was brought forward in response to the country’s 2019 protests that were met with lethal force, many boycotted the vote feeling that the country’s established parties are not interested in ending corruption or providing adequate public services. Although changes allowed many independent candidates to run, powerful blocks and parties were expected to dominate the outcome.
Countering disillusionment is one of the priorities of Iraq’s churches as they strive to offer hope and give the country’s dwindling Christian population a reason to remain. Fr Karam Shamasha is a priest in Telskuf, 19 miles north of Mosul, where a proportion of the Christian population returned after the town was liberated from Islamic State in August 2016. He told us about special meetings the church arranges for young people. Only a few of them have work and there is little on offer “to create a joyful atmosphere, except what is offered by the Church.” This “tries with all its energies to create a positive and beautiful atmosphere for them”.
Every week, the church organises educational, spiritual, cultural and sporting activities. Recent events included a weekend “carnival” of activities, a camp for middle school children and a meeting with young Christians from Zakho, Iraqi Kurdistan, “to share, talk, listen and exchange views”. More than 50 young people also travelled to participate in a four-day Christian camp in Sulaimaniyah, eastern Kurdistan.
Reconnecting with Syria
There is a subtle change on how Arab countries are starting to engage with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. King Abdullah of Jordan spoke to the Syrian president for the first time in a decade this month and the border between the two countries has reopened to trade. The UAE announced economic discussions. Talks of a gas pipeline from Egypt to Lebanon via Syria have begun and Egyptian and Syrian ministers met at the UN General Assembly. All of these players will most likely have had assurances from the US that these moves would not bring sanctions, a policy that remains in place but is clearly softening.
Tensions have also been easing between the UAE, Egypt and Turkey, as well as Qatar and other Gulf states. These are cautious geopolitical and economic steps, with each nation seeking to uphold their interests and influence. Only time will tell whether they will help bring an end to the decade-long war in Syria and to other regional rifts. There is no lessening of Iranian and Russian activities in Syria and Turkey seems set to remain there to prevent a new Kurdish statelet from emerging on its border. The Sunday Times recently reported on the suffering of the Assyrian Christian community in northeast Syria where Turkish bombardments of Kurdish-held areas create dangers for everyone.
New focus on Alexandria
Returning to Egypt, the last week has been an encouraging one for the Episcopal (Anglican) Church. Over a year after a new Anglican province was inaugurated, the Archbishop of Canterbury was able to visit. A special ceremony was held in which Dr Sami Fawzi was given charge as Archbishop of the new province of Alexandria, serving Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Mauritania, Chad, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia. Archbishop Mouneer Anis, who led the province in its first year, highlighted the historical significance of Alexandria in shaping the Church’s theology in the first millennium and suggested it might be a formative influence in the future. Archbishop Justin Welby also met with Pope Tawadros, the Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church and with Coptic Catholic leaders.