Tensions with Iran are producing unlikely alliances in the Middle East, while the importance of religious freedom was highlighted this month at a major international conference in London.
Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) was a major focus this month when nearly 700 politicians, faith leaders and activists from over 100 countries gathered in London for the fourth International Ministerial on the subject. The event was hosted by the UK government for the first time. In the opening plenary, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss outlined Foreign Office progress on implementing the Bishop of Truro’s recommendations on supporting persecuted Christians. She told delegates: “Societies that allow their people to choose what they believe are better, stronger and ultimately more successful.”
It was a point reinforced by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. After stressing the deep and beneficial contributions faith groups generally make to their communities, he said, “If you don’t offer people freedom, safety and opportunity, or if you only offer this to some people and not to others, you are not really leading”.
Seventeen panel discussions and many fringe events explored multiple aspects of FoRB, hearing both traumatic and encouraging examples. Co-host of the event, Lord Ahmad, said 35 countries joined the UK in signing up to one or more of a set of statements protecting and promoting FoRB and he hoped others would follow.
Lord Alton, speaking in one panel, said that FoRB was “honoured in the breach all over the world”. More examples came this month in the Middle East and North Africa. In Iran three Christians, already sentenced to five years for “engaging in propaganda and education of deviant [ie Christian] beliefs”, were notified of a second trial on identical charges. Still more concerning, four Christian men in Sudan have been charged with apostasy (leaving Islam). The transitional government that was overturned by the military last year had abolished the death penalty for apostasy and decriminalised it in 2020. Christian Solidarity Worldwide Founder Mervyn Thomas reacted by calling “for an immediate review of this case and the dropping of all charges against the men”.
From this month, SAT-7 will highlight the importance of FoRB in a new Free to Believe campaign, inviting UK Christians to add their voice and “end the persecution”. Coptic Bishop and FoRB advocate Archbishop Angaelos will join us at New Wine to launch this. Talking to SAT-7, he explained that religious freedom is a “God-given right” for all. “God directs us to love our neighbours and even our enemies, so as long as the rights of others do not entail the violation of others’ rights, then we should stand with them.”
Hunger and hardship
Sister Annie Demerjian, who has ministered to suffering Christians in Aleppo, Syria, since the start of its 11-year conflict said believers who had fled from jihadist groups are now “facing a crisis of hunger”. She spoke from the floor at a civil society panel during the FoRB Ministerial and at a fringe meeting. International sanctions were not hurting the government but the people, she said: “Many are saying I wish I could return to the time of the war because then we had food.”
Hunger is a problem in neighbouring Lebanon too. The 2020 Beirut port explosion severely destroyed the country’s main silos for imported grain. Now, the Ukraine war has brought dire shortages of grains, flour is rationed and food prices are rocketing. Strikes by public sector workers over pay highlight the population’s deep and growing frustration. The strikes now cover almost all civil sectors, including judges and prosecutors, slowing down all legal dealings.
Biden in the Middle East
In US President Biden’s first Middle East trip since taking office he insisted that the US will not leave a vacuum to be filled by Russia or China. However, the president’s meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom US intelligence agencies see as the main decision-maker behind the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, was seen as a U-turn after Biden had vowed to make him a pariah.
The visit came amidst reports that Russia is actively seeking to buy drones from Iran to use in Ukraine. While visiting Israel, Biden signed a new US–Israel pledge renewing their commitment to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Another key goal of the visit was to support the growing normalisation of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Saudi, Bahrain, Jordan, Egypt and Qatar reportedly had secret meetings with Israel earlier this year over their mutual defence interests against Iran.
In the Palestinian West Bank, Biden met with Palestinian President Abbas to pledge increases in aid for refugee services and hospitals. He restated US support for a two-state solution, but his admission that “the ground is not ripe at this moment to restart negotiations” prompted scepticism among Palestinians. They also see the closer relations between Israel and other Arab states as further isolating them. Israel, meanwhile, is set to see its fifth parliamentary elections in four years in October after the governing coalition collapsed. Foreign minister Yair Lapid has taken over as caretaker prime minister.
Iranian officials reacted loudly to President Biden’s visit to the region, claiming that the US was using Iranophobia to shore up support. In a curious move, Iran also brought sanctions against 61 Americans, including former US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo. The sanctions allow Tehran to seize all assets owned by these individuals in Iran, although it is highly unlikely that any of them does.
We are thankful that a three-month ceasefire in Yemen has held. This is the first lasting truce in a six-year war that has devastated an already impoverished country. The truce is set to be renewed by the end of July and there seems to be a positive momentum towards keeping it. However, the war in Ukraine and a fall in international aid are threatening food supplies and aid.
Turkey continues its build-up towards a new military operation against Syrian Kurdish groups in North Syria, while continuing its operations against Kurdish PKK militants based in the mountains of North Iraq. US officials have urged Ankara not to launch a new operation, though many see this as an inevitable development.
Back to one-man rule?
Later this month, Tunisia will hold a referendum on a new constitution that will formalise the one-man rule President Kais Saied has enforced since taking office a year ago. The new constitution will grant him unprecedented and unchecked powers. Until then, Tunisia was seen as the only country that was continuing the democratic momentum of the Arab Spring, albeit imperfectly. Saied has lost much of the support he enjoyed initially for his stand against political elites, corruption and seeming political paralysis. His plan to secure an IMF loan that would result in cuts to subsidies triggered large protests and strikes. Meanwhile, his decision to fire 57 judges in a single day prompted walkouts by judges and lawyers. Under the new constitution, judges and lawyers will lose the right to strike.
Increasing numbers of Evangelical Christians in Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Territories are seeking a stronger basis for their faith at theological college, reports Christianity Today. It found that this year’s student graduates reflect a surge in theology and related studies as well as the growth of parachurch ministries, especially in Egypt. Numbers studying at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo (ETSC) have grown tenfold from 50 in 1995 to 509 this year. The seminary’s decision to broaden the curriculum to include Master’s degrees in leadership and management is partly responsible, along with more positive government policies towards churches and fees subsidised by international donors.
Afghanistan, however, is seeing deeper religious persecution and restrictions in every area of life. As the nation approaches the anniversary of the Taliban takeover (15 August), several SAT-7 viewers told how many have been dismissed from government jobs, women are forced to be fully covered and men to grow long beards, and that mobile phones may be checked for content in the marketplace. “Hunger, famine and unemployment are gathering momentum, and taxes have increased,” said one viewer. “The security situation for someone like me who has accepted another faith is extremely concerning. My message to my brothers and sisters in the faith is: pray for us. I am grateful to you.”
In the UK, Sanjar Qiam, an Afghan refugee and master kite-maker, is helping to launch a kite-flying festival in August to “celebrate Afghan culture but also to highlight the crisis in Afghanistan”. The event, entitled Fly with Me, will be marked on 20 August in 15 UK cities.