The month has been marked both by diplomacy and power struggles on an international level. Away from the headlines, Middle East churches continued to work and pray for peace and freedom.
Hopeful diplomatic moves continue across the region. President Erdogan of Turkey has been warmly welcomed in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a marked change from the tensions that have prevailed between the two countries since the Arab uprisings of 2011. This followed Turkey’s recent moves to normalise relations with Israel and Armenia. Israeli President Isaac Herzog has met with UAE President and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince, Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, becoming the first-ever Israeli president to visit the UAE. He will also visit Turkey in March, marking the upturn in relations.
We could be skeptical about such diplomatic exercises when so many issues behind the tensions remain, but in a region with chronic instability, it is welcome while it lasts. The same goes for the latest negotiations by the US and European allies with Iran aimed at preventing the latter from developing nuclear enrichment to levels that could easily be weaponised. This week’s talks continued with US officials saying they are close to a deal and that the decision now lies with Tehran. Yet Iran will only accept if the US lifts all or most of the sanctions it currently imposes, and levels of trust are low.
When we look beyond the diplomatic moves, darker events also unfold. In Syria, US forces successfully located the latest leader of so-called Islamic State (IS), who seems to have killed himself and his family as the troops drew closer. Such operations may limit the activities and capacities of terror organisations for a time, but do not solve the underlying problems.
We were reminded of this by a prison break by IS inmates from an overcrowded prison operated by Kurdish forces in Hasakeh, north-east Syria. More than 80 prisoners and over 40 guards and security forces were killed in intense fighting while many local residents fled for safety. Some Western countries are now repatriating citizens from such prisons, but most are ignoring the problem. This leaves thousands of IS and other terrorist affiliates across Syria and the wider region.
Meanwhile, Turkey deepened its operations in Iraq and Syria against fighters associated with the Kurdish PKK guerilla movement. With more soldiers and drones deployed in new bases near its borders, Ankara seems determined to prevent any Kurdish political entity from emerging that could pose risks to itself. This is displacing more of the civilian population and creates more potential clashes within Turkey itself.
At home, Turkish citizens are struggling to cope with inflation rates that passed 36 per cent in December. In the years following 2002 when President Erdogan’s AKP party came to power, it deferred to economic technocrats and was rewarded with votes for rebuilding the economy. As people experience the highest inflation for nearly two decades, 75 per cent of respondents to a survey by a Turkish polling company said their trust in the government’s economic policies had decreased in the last year.
In Lebanon last month, three times prime minister Saad Hariri declared he won’t be standing in May’s parliamentary elections and called on his Future Movement party not to field any candidates either. Hariri represented the largest block of Sunni Muslim voters and a boycott by his party will throw the political process into disarray. Hariri pointed to Iran’s influence in the country and Hezbollah’s hold on politics as two of the factors behind his decision.
Hariri, the son of a business tycoon and prime minister who was assassinated in 2005, previously enjoyed the backing of Saudi Arabia, but this was withdrawn in 2017 and his political influence has waned since then. The news only threatens Lebanon with more sectarian unrest ahead, while the state’s economic collapse has plunged an estimated 78 per cent of its people into poverty.
Loulwa El Maalouf, Partnerships Director at Beirut’s Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, recently gave examples of the soaring inflation and citizens’ inability to access more than $400 a month of their own savings from banks – money that is converted to local currency at excessive exchange rates. Despite this, a course at the seminary had highlighted for her the “profoundly encouraging” work of Lebanese churches and Christian NGOs. Pray for them as the country faces so many obstacles.
Some 1,400 miles to the west, protests continued in Tunisia as President Kais Saied continued his consolidation of power. After suspending parliament and ruling by decree since July, his latest decisions have been to dissolve the Supreme Judicial Council, replace it with a new one and grant himself additional powers to control it. While critics see this as a return to authoritarianism, others see him as an outsider to politics who can clean out corruption and contain the influence of political Islam. Saied has promised to present a new constitution, following a public consultation, that he will offer to a referendum in July. Parliamentary elections are expected at the end of the year.
On the religious freedom front, members of many minority faiths in Tunisia have signed a “Charter of Peaceful Coexistence” as a way of calling for freedom of belief and the right to express it publicly to be guaranteed. The charter was organised by the Attalaki (“Encounter”) Association for Liberty and Equality on Religious Freedom, which has been monitoring cases of persecution since 2019. SAT-7’s Tunisian production partner, Perpetua, filmed the signing, which involved members of the Evangelical, Jewish, Sufi, Shi’a, and Baha’i communities. Please pray for this initiative and for Perpetua Manager, Ahlam Arfaoui, and Pastor Kamal Ouled Fatma of Tunis Evangelical Church, who were two of the signatories. Rabbi Daniel Cohen of the Jewish Synagogue in La Goulette said, “This charter will end years of fear, hatred and feelings of isolation from the rest of the people”.
Neighbouring Algeria, however, has climbed to Number 22 in the newly released annual WorldWatch List of countries where Christians face the most persecution. The closure of many Evangelical churches continues with a 90-member village congregation in Ait Atelli being ordered to shut, and a case being filed against the pastor and his father who owns the land where the church meets. The hearing for Pastor Chalah, the president of the Association of Protestant Churches (EPPA), has been postponed again until 27 February due to a lawyers’ strike. Our local SAT-7 producer says, “We appreciate your prayers for him and for the Church in Algeria as the situation is messy after the closure of many churches. The pandemic has also greatly affected the cell groups, the only glimmer of hope for Christians!” SAT-7 worship, teaching and testimony programmes in the Kabyle Berber dialect are an essential source of encouragement at this time.
Across Algeria’s eastern border, in Libya, the situation for Christians is the most severe in all North Africa. It was seven years ago this week that 20 Egyptian Christians and one Ghanaian were executed by IS in Libya. The country remains at number 4 in the WorldWatch List.
The 11th anniversary of the Libyan uprising also falls this week, on 17 February, though it has been in turmoil ever since. Presidential elections, due to have been held in December under an agreement by the country’s rival Tripoli-based High Commission and Tobruk-based parliament, were postponed. Now, after surviving an assassination attempt on 10 February, caretaker head of government Abdulhamid Dbeibah has rejected parliament’s decision to replace him with former Interior Minister, Fathi Bashaga. Dbeibah is insisting on staying in post until popular elections are held. As rival power groups found themselves once again on a collision course, the UN Secretary General urged them to move towards elections that express the will of 2.8 million voters as soon as possible.
Struggle in Sudan
Sudan is facing a power struggle too. General al-Burhan, who removed civilian members of the transitional government in October, has said he is open to a civilian-led government, though critics accuse him of “buying time”. Since October thousands of demonstrators have continued to call for full civilian rule and have often been fired on with live rounds as well as tear gas. More than 60 have been killed and hundreds injured.
After one of the worst days of violence in January, Christians of many denominations gathered in North Khartoum Evangelical Church to intercede for their country and leaders. Excerpts from the filmed service were shared on social media by SAT-7 to mobilise Christians across the Arab world in prayer for Sudan.
SAT-7 Arabic Channels Director, George Makeen, commented: “After almost three years of the revolution, Sudanese are still trying to find their way and insist on rejecting the control of the military. Freedom is the only way, they insist. Our prayers are for them not to lose hope, to find support and understanding from the international community, so that this country will continue to inspire the region and finally find its way for a better future.”