Events in Sudan and the Gulf of Oman dominated headlines this month as the Middle East seemed set for a dangerous summer.
Violence overtook months of peaceful protest in Sudan on 3 June. So-called Rapid Support Forces used live ammunition, severe beatings and rape to disperse a sit-in outside army headquarters in Khartoum. Two months before, pro-democracy demonstrators had succeeded in ending the presidency of Omar Al-Bashir, but the military council that took charge continues to reject calls for civilian rule. The crackdown was ordered by its second-in-command, Lt Gen Mohamed Hamdan (known as “Hemeti”), who has previously been accused of crimes of genocide in Darfur when he led the Janjaweed militias. Pro-democracy campaigners say that over 100 demonstrators were killed and more than 500 injured. A three-day general strike in response to the violence brought the country to a standstill. Nevertheless, the military council shows no signs of being swayed either by this strike or by international condemnation and the suspension of Sudan from the African Union. Regional allies including Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt are thought to be backing them politically and financially to ensure the regime does not change.
The tension between Iran and the US-Israel-Saudi Arabia bloc reached precarious levels this month. Two civilian oil tankers were attacked in the Gulf of Oman. The US and Saudi Arabia formally accused Iran of responsibility, although Germany and the Netherlands are seeking further information before drawing conclusions. Iran strongly denied wrongdoing but may have ordered the operation to highlight the risks associated with intensified sanctions by the US and its increased naval presence in the area. Whatever the truth, the growth of mistrust is deeply worrying. Wars can be triggered by accident and by spiralling tensions as much as by intention. Tehran also increased pressure on Europe by boosting its uranium enrichment production, warning that it will pass the levels agreed by the 2015 deal within 10 days unless the European signatories renew the agreement. Please pray that all decision-makers will be calm and focus on peace.
Israel is set for new elections in September after Prime Minister Netanyahu failed to form a coalition government following voting in April. This is a significant setback for the US administration’s promised but already delayed peace initiative on Israel-Palestine. The political proposals are likely to be put on ice, at least until a fresh Israeli government is formed. However, Jared Kushner, who has developed the US plan, intends to publish its economic proposals at an investment summit with Arab finance ministers in Bahrain (25-26 June). Palestinian representatives have not participated in any negotiations because the US has recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital (in breach of the Oslo Accords) and they believe that it has ceased to be an impartial mediator.
A TV debate last weekend between two politicians standing in the re-run Istanbul mayoral elections highlighted an ongoing crisis in Turkey. In March a political newcomer from the main opposition party narrowly defeated President Erdogan’s AKP candidate. This led the president to push for a recount and, after it confirmed the result, to ask for a re-run. The decision by the electoral supreme board to bow to this was seen as a severe undermining of Turkey’s voting processes. Declining confidence in Turkish democracy and uncertainty over Istanbul, Turkey’s economic powerhouse, also accelerated the fall of the Turkish lira. Fresh elections will be held on 23 June.
On a positive note, Turkish Christian radio network Shema – a good friend of the SAT-7 TÜRK television channel – reported on developments at its station in Mardin, near Turkey’s border with Syria. In addition to its Turkish broadcasts, it is seeking approval for programmes in Arabic, Kurdish and Syriac on a new station, Alef FM. SAT-7 TÜRK, meanwhile, was in the spotlight on Euronews, a European TV network. The secular channel interviewed channel director Melih Ekener and Umut Şahin, General Secretary of the Association of Protestant Churches. On the station’s fourth anniversary on the national satellite TV platform, they explained its role in serving Turkish Christians and giving Turkish viewers a more accurate understanding of Christianity.
Former president dies
Turkey’s President Erdogan was one of the first national leaders to mourn the death on 17 June of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. Morsi became the first elected head of state in Egypt in 2013. But the Muslim Brotherhood member quickly lost support in the country by following a conservative Islamist agenda and overreaching his powers. Removed by the army a year after his election, Morsi was imprisoned, and he died after collapsing in court where he was being tried on espionage charges. Human rights observers strongly criticised the conditions in which he had been held.
Western media attention on Syria has turned to the fate of former ISIS militants and their families – especially Western citizens – who are being held by Kurdish forces in north-east Syria. Yet the war in Syria continues in the opposition-held enclave of Idlib. Russian and Syrian airstrikes continue to bombard the area, not distinguishing between civilians and militants, hospitals and military sites. A ceasefire negotiated between Russia and Turkey broke down almost immediately. Turkey is keen to prevent another mass refugee influx into the country, while Russia has been pressuring Turkey – which has checkpoints across the area – to fight directly against jihadist groups, particularly Al Qaida and so-called Islamic State (IS) remnants. Continue to pray for Syria. The situation, with millions of Syrians displaced from their homes and the Syrian government keen to control who returns, is a fertile breeding ground for further extremism.
The long road home
In Lebanon, meanwhile, Syrian refugees faced increased pressure from authorities there. The army ordered the partial demolition of at least five thousand shelters as it stepped up enforcement of rules that forbid refugees from creating shelters with more than five rows of bricks or blocks. Lebanon’s government is determined that the more than one million displaced Syrians in the country should not stay permanently. While some have returned, many Syrians know that housing and infrastructure in their area has been destroyed or that it is not yet safe to return.
Iraq also continues to recover from the traumas brought by IS. Perhaps half of the Christians displaced from the Nineveh plains to Iraqi Kurdistan have returned in the two years since IS was dislodged from the area. Nizar Semaan, a former chaplain to the Syriac Catholic community in Britain, was ordained as the new Archbishop of Mosul this month.
Another Iraqi family, known to many SAT-7 supporters, features in a new SAT-7 documentary. Sequel of Hope revisits the family of Myriam, a schoolgirl whose message of forgiveness for IS went viral in 2014 when a SAT-7 KIDS presenter first met her. The new film recounts their return to the Christian town of Qaraqosh and follows them as they celebrated Easter this April.