Twenty years after 9/11, the shockwaves of the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan are being felt widely.
Within the country, those who have benefitted most from increased freedoms, educational and work opportunities, along with those who cooperated with international companies and forces, have had most to fear from the swift Taliban takeover. This includes Afghanistan’s underground Christian community of an estimated 5,000 to 8,000 believers. Persecution is expected to increase under the new rulers.
For neighbouring countries that have always hosted the largest numbers of displaced Afghans, a new wave of asylum seekers will prove a humanitarian challenge. There are concerns, too, over the emboldening of extremists by what they see as a major defeat of the US and its allies. Security experts fear that activities by jihadist networks will continue to grow, threatening Afghans and the wider region.
The jury is out on whether the Taliban of today is any different to that Taliban of 20 years ago. Promises of an inclusive government in this multi-ethnic nation were at odds with the announcement of an interim government of 33 Taliban founders and loyalists, all male with only 3 non-Pashtun members. Whether certain current provisions will continue, such as permission for women to attend university in segregated classes, is also unclear.
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It has been interesting to see Qatar emerge as a key player in diplomatic and humanitarian efforts to evacuate foreign citizens and Afghan nationals who worked for the US and allies. Qatar continues to evacuate people on civilian flights and pursue quiet diplomacy between the Taliban and key stakeholders including Russia, Iran, Turkey and the US. There are plans for Qatar and Turkey to operate Kabul airport, allowing more people to leave and greater international aid and engagement.
In some good news, Egypt and Turkey are pursuing direct talks to normalise relations after almost a decade of tensions that have affected other nations, including Cyprus, Libya, Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Egypt and Turkey disagree on a lot of things, not least on Libya. But the willingness shown by Ankara, including its muting of Muslim Brotherhood critics of Egypt based in Turkey, has created some openings. In a turbulent region, any effort to ease relationships is welcome.
A glimmer of hope has appeared for Lebanon which has been enduring its darkest times since its civil war. Politicians finally agreed on a new cabinet after almost a year of wrangling while the country plunged deeper into economic chaos, exacerbated by the pandemic and the port explosion. Three-quarters of the population have been pushed into poverty and there have been severe shortages of basic medicines, fuel and electricity. External players, led by France, have leant on politicians to compromise. The announcement of a cabinet has given the IMF (International Monetary Fund) the confidence to release $1.135 billion to Lebanon’s central bank. It is hoped that natural gas, piped from Egypt via Jordan and Syria and agreed by the four countries last week, will alleviate the fuel shortages that have drastically affected hospitals, businesses and everyday life.
A spokesperson for Resurrection Church Beirut, which airs one of its main services on SAT-7 each Sunday, said, “In the midst of all the pain and hurt, we are also experiencing how God is standing with us and how the Church is shining with practical love”. Resurrection Church has multiplied its congregations to 30 groups meeting in over ten districts. Each month it also provides food and hygiene parcels to 3,000 families. Many are being drawn to join local life groups and are coming to Christ. Please pray for them and for other churches that are using all the resources they can to serve their struggling communities.
As the United Nations marks International Democracy Day (15 September), it is sad to see an apparent retreat from democracy in Tunisia, the one country that seemed to be emerging successfully from the “Arab Spring”. After sacking the Prime Minister and suspending Parliament for a month in July, President Kais Saied last month suspended Parliament indefinitely because he said lobbying and deals by its members were a “threat to the state”. He is now seeking to suspend the constitution and amend its provisions. Because Tunisia’s democratic transition was incomplete and lacks a constitutional court it is unclear if these actions are legal. However, Tunisia’s recent political paralysis means that Saied has his supporters.
Ahead of the COP26 Climate Change conference, many churches in the region are marking this month as Creation Time or Creationtide. The season, observed around the world, was inspired by the suggestion of then Ecumenical Patriarch Demetrios 1 in 1989 that 1 September, the first day of the Orthodox year, should be marked as a day “of protection of the natural environment”. This has grown to a month-long season and was embraced by the Middle East Council of Churches for the first time this year. A TV series, booklet and prayers said in churches across the Levant is intended to help Arab Christians become more aware and active in environmental care. MECC President Dr Michel Abs said, “The way in which the Church cares for the environment indicates her pioneering role [in society] and her respect for the Creator”.
The season comes as a massive oil spill from a Syrian power plant is threatening marine life in coastal areas of Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Cyprus, and as nations including Turkey, Algeria, Lebanon and Tunisia recover from devastating forest fires.
The Kabylia region of Algeria – home to most of the country’s Christians – was one of the worst-hit areas. Some 90 people including soldiers sent to battle the fires perished in this forested, mountainous region.
Rezki Ouaked, Assistant to the General Secretary of the Bible Society in Algeria and a member of the Full Gospel Church in Tizi-Ouzou, described visiting one of the villages to take water, baby milk and nappies to families who had fled from other villages. “I will never forget the moment we arrrived,” he said. “It was like a whirlwind of heat!”
Ouaked described how church members drove to villages to take water when their supplies were cut off for up to ten days. “Like all other organisations in the area, Muslim or Christian, the Church in Tizi-Ouzou did everything it could to help,” he said.
Four Christians he met had lost their homes. The Church helped evacuate many families to Tizi-Ouzou, the regional centre, where 80 families have been housed in hotels and several Christians have been sheltered by church families. The Church continues to take aid to affected villages and plans to replace essential electrical appliances for Christian families who lost everything.
Please pray and give thanks for Algeria’s Church. Around a third of their buildings have been closed under government orders over the last two years. Despite this, they continue to serve and witness with energy and compassion and several worship teams lead services aired weekly on SAT-7.
Our thanks to United Bible Societies for assistance with our report from Algeria.
Read how SAT-7 is supporting Christians in Afghanistan through its programming and viewer support teams.