Four years after Syria erupted into civil war, the domino effects of Syria’s collapse took centre stage in Europe as the refugee crisis reached new levels.
After four years of brutal conflict and multiple actors fighting for multiple aims, it is little wonder that civilian populations see little option but to flee the country. Regional countries have long reached the end of their own resources, and the UN Refugee Agency has repeatedly raised alarms that its funding is failing to meet the challenge. The World Food Programme this month was forced to slash food vouchers to one third of refugees. Social tensions within the countries hosting Syrians are increasing, and many refugees now see that they face a bleak future in these lands as the possibility of returning to Syria recedes. Many attempt to reach Europe by any means possible, since the legal route of applying for refugee status through the UN can take years and may be unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, the tensions in Turkey have reached worrying levels. The July bombing by IS in Suruc led to a collapse in the ceasefire between Turkey and Kurdish militant organisation, the PKK. After the group accused Turkey of being behind the IS attack and killed three police officers in retaliation, Turkey launched operations against PKK targets both within the country and in Iraq. Violence escalated with some 70 Turkish soldiers and police officers now having died and 130 been wounded in PKK attacks. No one knows the true death toll of PKK militants, but Turkish official accounts have accounted for more than 300.
On the political front, Turkey’s political parties failed to form a coalition after its indecisive June elections. As a result, Turkish President Erdogan called for early elections to be held in November. Amidst all these developments, Turkey’s previously buoyant economy has been hit for six, with the lira plummetting to a record low against the dollar. Investors have been quick to spot that more than a decade of stable governance and economic growth has come to an end. More difficult days seem to lie ahead.
While the refugee crisis, IS and the Turkey-PKK clash dominate media attention, Yemen and Libya continue to unravel. Qatar is sending 1,000 troops into Yemen, after more than 3,000 arrived from Saudi Arabia and UAE. The destruction wreaked by aerial bombings has prompted humanitarian agencies to sound alarm bells over access to food, healthcare and water in the country. In North Africa, there is no sign of a new Libya emerging as fragmentation continues and IS-related groups are becoming more and more active.
In Lebanon, demonstrations over the government’s failure to end a protracted rubbish crisis continued but have grown into wider thousands-strong protests criticising the Lebanese government for being ineffectual and corrupt. Supporters of Lebanon’s Free Patriotic Movement, drawn from some of Lebanon’s Christian population, massed to call for parliamentary elections and a new Lebanese president to be selected by popular vote.
Seek God’s protection for all displaced people and refugees, remembering Jesus’ offer of rest to all who are weary and heavy-laden and God’s promise of shelter.
One of the profoundly moving things amidst the depressing news of the refugee crisis has been seeing how parts of the European church have risen up to be prophetic voices and offer a warm welcome to refugees. Pope Francis has asked all parishes to host one refugee family – a practical and possible way that the Body of Christ can aid their governments to cope with the responsibility. A British example has been the “Home for Good” campaign which is asking British Christians to help in the hosting and care of refugees. These moves were in stark contrast to the calls of some Eastern European states which announced they would only accept refugees from Syria if they were Christians. Although the fears behind this response are understandable, the response seems far from the biblical mandate to “love the stranger” (Deuteronomy 10:18-19).
In Turkey, 6-7 September marks the 60th anniversary of attacks on Christians and the looting of thousands of Christian properties in Istanbul. These were triggered by false reports that Greek citizens had destroyed the birthplace of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. From attacks on the Greek population, Armenians and even the Jewish community were targeted. Shops, homes and church buildings were affected, and more than a dozen people killed. This outburst of violence accelerated the dramatic decline of the Christian population in Turkey that began with the new republic in 1923. From a population of millions, today less than 100,000 Greek and Armenian Christians remain. The anniversary comes after worrying reports of death threats sent to a number of Turkish Protestant Churches by radical Islamists. Growing pressures on security in the country make this a high risk.
In Israel, more than 2,000 demonstrators gathered outside of the Israeli Prime Minister’s office to protest against government cuts to funds to Christian schools. The move has been seen as government pressure to end the independence of these schools. Tens of thousands of, mostly Arab, Christian students in dozens of schools have been on strike since the new term began in September. It is thought that Christians constitute less than 3 per cent of Israel’s population.
In Syria, Christians continue to be targeted by so-called Islamic State. At least 60 Christians were among 200 civilians abducted from al-Qaryatain in Homs governorate. A Syrian Catholic monastery in the town, built on the site of the 1,500-year-old tomb of Saint Elian, was demolished. In separate incidents 22 elderly Assyrian Christians were released by IS and a Greek priest was released after negotiations by local dignitaries.
Ask that the light of God’s love and justice will shine more brightly throughout the Middle East, and that the witness of Christians will draw others towards it.