This Easter, three Abrahamic faiths overlapped in celebrations of Ramadan, Passover and Easter. Different religious calendars aligned, and shared roots, lands and heritages became clear. Yet, the same week saw a fresh cycle of violence on the Temple Mount and Al-Azhar compound in Jerusalem.
Palestinian demonstrators and Israeli police clashed in scenes that saw rocks thrown at Jewish worshippers from the hilltop and Israeli forces storming one of Islam’s most holy sites and injuring Palestinian worshippers. These events followed two disturbing weeks of unrest across the country in which both Israeli and Palestinian citizens were killed in a number of attacks and raids. On 17 April an exchange of rocket fire between Hamas in Gaza and Israeli forces risked further escalation. A week earlier, Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa told Palm Sunday crowds in Jerusalem that the city “over which Jesus wept, and which he loved so much, continues to be wounded by divisions, by the logic of possession and exclusivism. We are tired of violence, hatred, and revenge,” he declared. “Let us pray for justice and peace for our peoples of the Holy Land.”
A positive note came in the lifting of Covid and border restrictions so that foreign pilgrims could visit the city for the first time in three years. Over a thousand international visitors also took part in the 8th Bethlehem Marathon (18 March). An estimated 10,000 people of all ages and abilities strode out in four races, ranging from a 5k family run to the full marathon.
The war in Ukraine, meanwhile, continues to have repercussions for the Middle East. There are reports that Russia has recruited hundreds of Syrians to fight with its forces in Ukraine. Clearly, Russian forces are following the same rule book they used in Syria with indiscriminate attacks on civilians and intentional targeting of hospitals. The invasion of Ukraine and sanctions on Russia continue to fuel more concerns for food insecurity across the region. Plummeting grain exports from Ukraine are affecting food aid to countries like Afghanistan and Yemen where almost 23 million and over 17 million people respectively face severe food shortages. Many African and other Middle East states who buy from Ukraine face competition from wealthier nations that can purchase food supplies at higher prices.
Increased droughts are also causing havoc. Morocco is experiencing one of the worst in recent history. Some reports suggest it will lose almost 53 per cent of the country’s annual grain production. Add to this higher energy prices which increase production and distribution costs, and a swathe of nations face chronic food insecurity and the resulting health impacts.
More and more details are emerging about the industrial scale production and sale of captagon, an illegal amphetamine drug being produced in Syria. The drug is damaging the lives of millions of people in the region and fuelling serious concerns over organised crime and cartels in Jordan and Lebanon. Its production and sales are understood to be sanctioned by and profiting the Syrian regime, leading many to name it a “narco-state”. Some studies calculate that the value of Syrian captagon pills in 2020 was $3.5 billion, five times the value of the country’s legal exports. In the last two years, millions of captagon pills have been seized in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraqi Kurdistan and Lebanon, and production is accelerating. An addiction crisis is waiting in the wings.
The nuclear enrichment talks with Iran remain stalled. Russian demands to add conditions to the talks to protect its own trade with Iran are a major block. Meanwhile, the Iranian President publicly threatened Israel with an attack if Israel was to make the “tiniest move” against Iran. It is not now clear how the talks can proceed when only recently they seemed on the verge of a breakthrough.
Afghanistan saw deep disappointment, too, when excitement at the long-awaited return to school for secondary age girls turned to dismay. On the first day of term, coinciding with Persian New Year, the Taliban administration reversed its decision, sending shocked girls and teachers home again. A statement said that schools for girls above year 6 would remain closed until “a plan was drawn up in accordance with Islamic law and Afghan culture”. Observers asked why 183 days of closure had not been long enough to address perceived uniform issues. Many asked whether Taliban views on girls and women in public life had really changed since their previous rule.
Tense Easter in Egypt
The community was also disturbed by the alleged kidnapping, forced conversion and reported release of a Christian woman, and by a normally liberal news site quoting a Muslim sheikh who described Christians as “infidels”. Coptic Pope Tawadros ll responded to the outrage of many Christians over these events. He demanded that authorities maintain the peace and fully investigate the murder of Fr Wadid. His suspected killer has claimed that he acted while mentally ill, a tactic often used by extremists to avoid sentencing.
SAT-7 Arabic Channels Director George Makeen said that Christians “were broken” by the murder of Fr Wadid and commented on the tense and “polarised” situation in Egypt that is heightened by mainstream and social media. Referring to the woman’s kidnap, he explained that “women and girls are often used as tools in religious conflicts”. He said that a new SAT-7 project will focus on Freedom of Religion or Belief especially as it affects women.
In some good news, the IMF and authorities in Lebanon reached a preliminary agreement worth $3 billion in support of the country’s crumbling economy. Before this deal can be finalised, however, Lebanese authorities must show they have credible plans to tackle key issues in governance of the economy, the tax system and restructuring the nation’s debt. These are all easier said than done, given Lebanon’s complex political, legal and economic systems and deeply entrenched interest groups. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Najib Mikati is set to visit Saudi Arabia in couple of weeks’ time. The Gulf state has been a major investor in Lebanon in the past but shrank its support over the last decade in response to the increased influence of Iran and Hezbollah in the country. Alongside the easing of other tensions in the Gulf region, there are signs that Saudi Arabia is looking to engage with Lebanon again.
For six months, politicians in Iraq have been unable to agree on a president or prime minister. But away from the deadlocked political scene there are signs of hope returning since the destruction caused by so-called Islamic State. Small numbers of foreign tourists are again visiting the site of the ancient city of Babylon, declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2019. Mosul Library reopened with more than 20,000 books donated by the UK Book Aid charity. Also in Mosul, colourful street murals feature portraits of famous women in a city where women dared not show their faces under IS rule,.
On Palm Sunday in the nearby Nineveh plain, Christian towns were filled by thousands of people processing through the streets carrying palm fronds and some wearing traditional folk costumes. In Qaraqosh, the largest Christian town, crowds were estimated to be 25,000 strong. Between 40 and 50 per cent of the area’s Christian population has returned since the fall of IS in 2019, although unstable politics, lawless militias in some areas, and high unemployment remain.
Lastly, in an historic move, the first woman pastor has been ordained in Syria by the National Evangelical Synod in Syria and Lebanon. Revd Mathilde Sabbagh will serve at the Presbyterian Church in her home town of Al-Hassakah, northeast Syria. In nearby Jordan and the Holy Land, the Evangelical Lutheran Church also announced that it will soon ordain its first female pastor, Ms Sally Azar. They will join a handful of women clergy serving in the region.