The first ever visit by a Catholic Pope to the Arabian Peninsula gave an important boost to religious coexistence in the region this month.
During a three-day trip to Abu Dhabi (UAE), Pope Francis met with the Crown Prince, took part in a two-day “Conference on Human Fraternity” attended by 600 religious leaders and opinion shapers, and led a mass attended by over 100,000. The conference ended with a significant document, signed by the Pope and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar. The Grand Imam is head of one of the most influential Sunni Muslim institutions in the Arab world. Both leaders committed their faiths to “harmonious coexistence”, “tolerance” and “freedom of belief, thought, expression and action”. The Grand Imam made significant statements, telling Middle Eastern Christians, “You are not minorities; you are our brothers and sisters and fellow citizens with equal rights and responsibilities”. Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, UAE Minister for Foreign Affairs, described the visit as a “new era” for interfaith relations.
Although the Pope praised the Gulf state for its religious tolerance (some 40 or so churches serve UAE’s almost one million ex-patriate Christians), he also condemned regional wars including Yemen, in which UAE has been a leading actor with Saudi Arabia. The hope must be that leaders and citizens across the Middle East will capture the vision for religious freedom and equality. A Papal visit to Morocco (30-31 March) will offer an opportunity to continue discussions on Christian-Muslim relations in the region.
US withdrawal from Syria
In Syria, meanwhile, the ripples of President Trump’s decision to pull out US troops continue to spread. The fight against so-called Islamic State is in its final stages, with the last remaining IS-dominated village on the verge of capture. Yet this is a deceptive victory, as the end of the self-declared caliphate does not mean that the thousands of IS terrorists who have gone to ground have abandoned their fight or ideology.
It is also unclear what will happen to the north-east Syrian territories abandoned by IS. These are currently controlled by the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces and its political arm. Turkey, however, sees them as allies of Kurdish PKK insurgents. Determined to block an independent region on their border, Turkey has threatened to launch another offensive as it did in neighbouring Afrin. With US troops set to withdraw, the Kurds are scrambling to negotiate protection from Syria and Russia, and cling to their hope of somehow persuading Damascus to grant self-administration. Russia, Syria and Iran, as well as the US, are negotiating with Turkey to find a constructive way forward.
For the moment, the situation is ensnared by far too many stakeholders with conflicting interests, security concerns and political ambitions. Apart from this, there is little talk on how to rebuild after the massive devastation left by nearly eight years of conflict. Nor is there a wider Syria commitment from the West, beyond the myopia of fighting IS. For the next couple of decades, Syria will need our prayers and support to heal and recover from a civil war that has torn apart the country and wider region.
Iranian republic at 40
A country that has increased its influence in Syria – thanks to its military support – is Iran. It has also demanded that the US leave Syria. Since the beginning of the month, the Shia nation has been marking the 40th anniversary of the overthrow of the Shah and the foundation of the Islamic Republic. Rallies have been held at a time of increased US sanctions following the US withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal Framework. However, the United Kingdom, France and Germany are spearheading a new initiative, INSTEX, in order to allow direct trade and financial transactions with Iran and bypass US sanctions. The new structure will be open to third party countries beyond the 28 European nations. The move brought praise from Tehran, as an expression of Europe’s commitment to its promises, and criticism from US officials for undermining the pressures they are exerting.
After nearly nine months, a new unity government was formed in Lebanon. Prime Minister Hariri will now see his third term in government, in a complex power share that will include ministers from his opponents, Hezbollah. The news received a broad welcome, as the government vacuum has been holding up access to promised aid and investment funds, and had paralysed Lebanon from taking action in the face of complex economic and social challenges.
The President of Egypt, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, took over as chair of the African Union from Rwanda’s Kagame this month. Sisi is expected to make combating terrorism a major focus of his term as the head of the union of some 55 countries. Meanwhile, proposed changes to the 2014 constitution moved by the Egyptian parliament could reduce the checks and balances on presidential power and extend the terms of a president from four to six years.
In Algeria, President Bouteflika has announced that he will be seeking his fifth term in power. The 81-year-old president has been governing Algeria for some 20 years and has been in poor health for some time. No Algerians would want to return to the brutality of the country’s civil war (Dec 1991-Feb 2002), but uncertainty concerning the country’s long-term future looks set to be prolonged.
In neighbouring Tunisia, seven jihadists have been sentenced to life imprisonment for attacks on tourists in 2015, which killed some 60 people. One of these was on the Bardo Museum in Tunis, and the other on a beach hotel in Sousse, where most of the victims were British. The attacks seriously affected Tunisia’s struggling economy, as tourism disappeared. Yet, the travel bans on the country have been lifting gradually, and British tourists are now able to travel to the country again.
Public anger over rocketing food prices and a heavy-handed crackdown on protesters continues in Sudan. Hundreds of demonstrators have been detained and over 30 killed. Despite a lifting of US economic sanctions in October 2017, inflation has continued to soar, and people are tiring of President Omar al-Bashir’s strong-handed rule. The good news behind this story, however, is that churches in Sudan continue to share the Gospel actively despite restrictions. And, among the tens of thousands of Sudanese refugees in neighbouring countries like Egypt, practical care and support by Christian agencies and churches is leading many to become open to learning about Christ for the first time.
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