Parts of the region are seeing welcome signs of peace this month, even as Lebanon struggled to pick itself up from a massive disaster in its capital.
August’s explosion at the port in Beirut inflicted unprecedented damage across the Lebanese capital and wrecked its main export and import hub. Over 200 people died, thousands were injured and an estimated 300,000 lost their homes. Worst hit were some of the Christian residential areas close to the sea front. All the details that are emerging show gross negligence in the mass storage of ammonium nitrate, allowed to decay over six years and combust so close to the city centre. A fire that broke out a month later forced locals to relive the trauma once again.
To many, these events revealed the root of the country’s problems: a political and bureaucratic class that refuses to take responsibility apart from protecting its own interests, and showed how weak the state’s capabilities are, even for basic services needed for the search and rescue and clean-up. The willingness of volunteer teams to clear debris and distribute aid was a welcome contrast.
France’s President Macron, the leader of the country that administered Lebanon and Syria after World War 1, seized the moment to fly in and push for political and economic change in the country. However, whether his dual investment promises and sanction threats will achieve very much is far from clear. The disaster saw off the second Lebanese government in a year but the country needs more than new faces around the table. The Lebanese are known for their resilience, but the numbers of those – mostly young or professionals – who plan to leave the country is worrying. Pray for Lebanon and remember the many active churches, Christian groups and SAT-7’s Beirut studio that are seeking to support people as they try to rebuild their lives in the face of escalating poverty and homelessness.
President Macron has also thrown himself into another explosive development, this time in the Eastern Mediterranean. Mounting tensions over energy exploration between Greece, Turkey and Cyprus have reached a new level. Ankara has been increasingly angered as Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt, backed by France and the UAE, have made energy deals whilst excluding Turkey from almost any gas or oil explorations in Aegean and Mediterranean waters. Turkey reacted by despatching energy search vessels, protected by its navy, to disputed regions, and President Macron, in turn, sent French naval ships to press Turkey to withdraw. At the time of writing there is a freeze in escalations, but it is difficult to see whether Greece and Turkey can find an energy-sharing deal. Egypt, the UAE and Israel also have good reasons to use this escalation as an opportunity to limit Turkish ambitions.
In contrast, Israel signed new normalisation agreements with the UAE and Bahrain. These peace accords, facilitated by the US, are the first between Arab nations and Israel in 25 years. Hailed as historic, they actually make public relationships that were always good but were kept hidden from view due to their sensitivities. The agreements will allow open trading for the two Gulf states who are keen to benefit from Israeli technology and will mean less isolation for Israel. Palestinians, however, felt further isolated. The long-held Arab consensus has been that normalised relations with Israel would only come with Palestinian independence. For the moment, Israel has paused its promised further expansion of the settlements in the West Bank.
Another reason for the agreements is a shared fear of Iran, something that also weighs heavily on minds in Washington. Recent US media reports cited an anonymous official who said that Iran was planning to assassinate the US Ambassador in South Africa in retaliation for the killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani. Meanwhile, Iran has pushed on with its nuclear enrichment programme.
In Iran itself, a fascinating poll of religious attitudes confirmed what many observers, including Christian leaders, have long believed. An online survey of 50,000 Iranians by a Dutch research group found massive changes in religious belief, apparently disillusioned by the hardline Shia Islamic regime. Some 46.8 per cent said they had changed from being religious to having no religion, 41 per cent said they believed members of all faiths ought to be able to propagate their views, and 1.5 per cent identified as Christians. This last figure suggests that there are over a million Christians, mostly converts, in Iran today.
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While Christian converts are routinely arrested, Iran’s neglect of basic human rights is widespread. Another example came this month in the execution of champion wrestler Navid Afkari (27). Afkari was sentenced to death after apparently taking part in mass protests in August 2018 against economic hardship. He was accused of killing a security agent during these and he admitted to this in a forced confession under torture. A high profile campaign for clemency saw international athletes, the US president, the International Olympic Committee and others appeal on his behalf, but to no effect.
Yemen continues to need our prayers. Almost 80% of the population depends on aid to survive. The Saudi-led coalition continues to bomb targets in the country, with more civilians being killed in August than any month this year, according to Mark Lowcock, the UN’s Head of Humanitarian Affairs. Lowcock also berated Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait for giving nothing to this year’s underfunded UN aid plan for Yemen. There are also reports that Houthi rebels are blocking or stealing large portions of the aid that is delivered. At the same time, COVID-19 is spreading unchecked in a country where there is scant health awareness and very limited health services.
Afghanistan, meanwhile, has been urged to seize an historic opportunity for peace. Many nations commended peace talks that began in Qatar this week and brought together government and Taliban leaders for the first time in 19 years. Sadly, the Taliban has not reduced its attacks in recent weeks, however, and the two sides are far apart. Pray that there will be a change of minds that would lead to both peace and freedom for Afghanistan’s people.
Thankfully, the peace process in Sudan has advanced much further. On 31 August the transitional government and an umbrella organisation of most rebel groups in Sudan signed the new peace framework. A government spokesperson also promised a second phase of talks with remaining rebels. The peace process addresses many key issues, from power sharing to the role of religion in the constitution and how to address the legacies of decades-long conflict. A lot can go wrong but there is a wealth of optimism on what this can achieve, especially if Western nations and the UN commit to supporting it.
Significantly, the framework reverses ousted President Al-Bashir’s policy of Islamisation. It commits Sudan to the “separation of religion and state” and removes Sharia as the basis for state law. Such moves won’t automatically change everything on the ground, but are encouraging signs. At a practical level, however, the country has been forced to declare a three-month state of emergency after rainstorms caused the Nile to rise to record levels and flooded hundreds of thousands of homes.