Amidst heightened tensions in the Persian Gulf and political standoffs and transitions from Turkey to North Africa, the cause of persecuted Christians was remembered in Iraq and in a UK Foreign Office report.
Sudan remained in the headlines as the first mass demonstrations were held since the massacre at a sit-in protest last month. Protesters again took to the streets of Khartoum and other cities on 30 June despite an internet blackout and blockades on bridges. On Thursday (4 July), however, a breakthrough was announced in negotiations between the Transitional Military Council (TMC) and a coalition of civilian opposition groups. After mediation by the African Union and Ethiopian government representatives, both sides have agreed to a form of power-sharing. Under an unusual agreement, Sudan’s military and the civilian coalition are set to rotate their control during a three-year interim period. The country has also been promised an independent investigation into the killing of protesters on 3 June. Prayer is needed for peace to prevail and for a genuine will to end corruption and injustice and effect the transition to democracy.
Several incidents further heightened tensions between Iran and Western nations this month. After a spate of attacks on oil tankers that the US blamed on Iran, Iranian forces shot down a US drone in the Gulf of Oman, claiming it had violated Iranian air space. US President Trump reportedly considered a military response but cancelled it at the last minute. Last week, British Royal Marines seized an Iranian tanker off Gibraltar that was believed to be carrying crude oil to Syria. While British officials investigated whether the vessel’s owners intended to break the sanctions on Syria, an Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander threatened to seize a British ship in retaliation. The increased dangers to shipping have coincided with Iran’s declaration that it had exceeded the uranium enrichment cap set by the 2015 nuclear deal. Iran is ratcheting up pressure on European signatories to the deal in order to facilitate more oil sales and offset the economic impact of US sanctions.
There was a landmark moment in Turkey last month when the rerun of mayoral elections in Istanbul saw a decisive victory for opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu. It came after the AKP refused to accept Imamoglu’s victory by a slim margin three months ago and pressed for new elections. (This was the first electoral defeat for President Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party [AKP] in 17 years.) The move backfired. A margin of 800,000 votes, including support in some AKP stronghold districts, suggested that many were angered by the ruling party’s rejection of the earlier vote. The result seems to be a sign of growing disenchantment with the president and an indication that Turkish democracy remains resilient.
UK RESPONSE TO PERSECUTION
The first details of a UK Foreign Office report into the country’s response to the persecution of Christians were revealed on Monday (8 July). A government-commissioned investigation was chaired by Philip Mountstephen, the Anglican Bishop of Truro. His report acknowledges that persecution of Christians is on the rise worldwide. It makes three key recommendations: that the government should consider imposing sanctions on countries that persecute Christians; that a definition of anti-Christian persecution similar to those for anti-Semitism and Islamophobia should be adopted; and that religious literacy training should be prioritised for diplomats and Foreign Office staff. If acted upon, the recommendations would be a step forward both for Christians and other minority faiths.
Iraq – one of the countries where Christians suffered intense opposition from so-called Islamic State – has issued invited Pope Francis to make an official visit to the country next year. “The most recent onslaught by terrorist groups has brought unimaginable destruction to Christians and other Iraqi communities,” said Baghdad-based President Salah. He said the Catholic leader’s visit would be an “immense comfort to the many Iraqis who are still recovering from the hardships of conflict”. Iraq’s largest Christian communities – the Syriac-Catholic and Chaldean Catholic churches – are both affiliated to the Vatican.
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In a strange turn of events, President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, held a summit in Bahrain to launch the first part of his peace initiative for the Palestinians. Titled “The Peace to Prosperity Workshop”, it brought together around 350 diplomats, investors and others to consider the benefits of economic investment in the Palestinian Territories and neighbouring countries. Kushner set out a plan to raise 50 billion dollars for projects in Gaza and the West Bank. But since Palestinian politicians boycotted the meeting, Israeli government representatives were not invited either. More importantly, the summit offered no political framework or proposals for issues that have remained unsolved for decades. Critics dismissed Kushner’s case studies of growth in sovereign states like Singapore and Japan as being far from the economic realities of life in the Palestinian Territories, where Israeli occupation is seen as the main obstacle to development. Palestinian President Abbas said that he could not accept turning “the whole cause from a political issue into an economic one”.
MIGRANT CENTRE BOMBED
In Libya the latest casualties of eastern commander Khalifa Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli were over 50 mostly sub-Saharan migrants and refugees being held in the Tajoura detention camp. No-one has claimed responsibility for the airstrike, although camp guards are being blamed for forcing the migrants to stay in the centre even after another missile had struck a nearby garage. Haftar has also continued a bombardment of Tripoli’s airport and threatened to target Turkish assets because Turkey has been arming the forces of Tripoli’s UN-backed Government of National Accord.
Mauritania, a country that underwent multiple coups between 1978 and 2008 and experienced jihadist attacks and unrest in the 2000s, has seen the election of a new president. Mohamed Cheikh El-Ghazouani is a former general and long-term ally of the previous president. El-Ghazouani has promised not only to maintain stability but also to focus on much-needed economic development. The country needs prayer too for human rights, including freedom of religion. There are disparities between dominant ethnic Arab-Berbers, descendants of former slaves, and various sub-Saharan African groups. As well as a small Catholic community centred on the capital, Nouakchott, there is a small but growing number of Mauritanian evangelicals who meet in secret. Conversion from Islam and even speaking ill of the religion could incur the death penalty.
Finally, a BBC Arabic survey of 25,000 people in over ten Arab nations had some interesting findings. Since 2013, the number of people describing themselves as “not religious” rose from 8 per cent to 13 per cent. Social attitudes in some areas remained deeply conservative, however. While most people were happy with the idea of a woman head of state, the majority believed that men should have the final say on decisions at home. Disturbingly, “honour killing” was seen as acceptable by a quarter of people in Algeria and Morocco and 21 per cent in Jordan.