It was UK Prime Minister Harold Macmillan who, in 1958, tweaked a Winston Churchill statement to say “jaw-jaw is better than war-war”. Happily, this month sees some examples – though not enough – of renewed dialogue bringing hope of peace and democracy to parts of the Middle East.
News that US President Joe Biden is set to visit Saudi Arabia next month suggests that relations with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman are normalising four years after the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate. This is a challenge for Biden, having promised he would put human rights at the centre of his presidency. Now, like previous presidents, he is also having to consider energy production needs and regional stability.
Meanwhile, the Gulf kingdom continues a process of quiet but significant change. Its ambitions to boost visitor numbers to 30 million a year is an historic shift in a country traditionally closed to tourism. Until now arrivals have been limited to a few million Muslims who visit on pilgrimage and others who come as migrant workers. The social and cultural impact of so many tourists should not be underestimated in a traditionally conservative country.
On the other side of the Gulf, Iran has been urged to return to talks by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The UN agency is also pressing Iran not to hinder observations of its nuclear enrichment programme after Iran reportedly disconnected several surveillance cameras. But 18 months of negotiations between the US and Iran have failed to reach agreement and there are growing concerns that Iran may be only a year away from being able to manufacture a nuclear weapon. Saudi Arabia and the Emirates also have nuclear programmes which, although compliant with IAEA safeguards, makes the situation in this region even more concerning.
Tower block disaster
Against this backdrop, Iran’s population continues to feel the deep effects of international sanctions as well as the impact of corruption and under-investment. On 23 May over 40 people lost their lives in the collapse of a ten-storey apartment block in the southwestern city of Abadan. Although Iran frequently experiences earthquakes, the collapse was blamed on corrupt developers and neglectful officials. Angry mourners directed their protests at the Tehran regime and Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. Discontent over neglect and discrimination is already widespread among the Arab majority community in Iran’s Khuzestan province that neighbours Iraq. Poor construction practices seem nationwide, however. Reports have emerged of over a hundred dangerous buildings and over 30,000 deemed unsafe in Tehran alone.
Turkey is preparing for a new military offensive in northern Syria as it seeks to prevent any potential Kurdish statelet from emerging and also to relocate a million Syrian refugees to these and other areas. President Erdogan said the aim is to create a 30 kilometer deep “security zone” along the 458 kilometers between the two areas it already controls. This will involve dislodging the Syrian Kurdish People’s Defence Units (YPG) that, with US support, captured the area from so-called Islamic State. In danger, too, are hundreds of thousands of Kurdish civilians who form the majority in this territory. Turkey’s last major incursion displaced around 300,000 people. For its part, Turkey says it will build 200,000 homes for returning Syrians. As the world understandably focuses on Ukraine, please pray for others who are less visible, including small numbers of Christians in northern Syria. In a sad footnote to this story, it is reported that Turkey has returned 1,200 asylum seekers and migrants to Afghanistan in the last two weeks.
In North Africa, Algeria has suspended a 20-year friendship treaty with Spain and cut off bilateral trade. This comes in an escalation of tensions after Spain acknowledged its support for Morocco’s plans for autonomy in the disputed Western Sahara region. This contradicts the policies of Algeria which also hosts Sahrawi refugees who fled Morocco in the 1970s. Since Algeria is an important source of natural gas, there is a risk this could cause problems for Spain and Europe more widely, given the need to diversify energy supplies because of the Ukraine conflict. Sahrawi viewers of SAT-7 who are known to us are small in number, but pray for them as they watch our North African programmes and contact the producers. Ask that more people in this disputed territory will come to know the love of God.
The Evangelical Church of Egypt (Synod of the Nile) last month hosted a new short film festival to help young film-makers grow a Christian voice within the culture. Well-known Egyptian actor Lofty Labib was honorary president of the three-day Salam (“Peace”) Film Festival that drew established Christian TV and film producers, including SAT-7 directors, and new writers, directors and actors. Some 26 films were entered in competition and there were many sessions to exchange ideas and deepen understanding of media needs and challenges.
In Sudan, a face-to-face meeting of Sudan’s military rulers and the country’s leading pro-democracy group increased hopes of a return to democratic transition after October’s military coup. Afterwards, the Forces for the Declaration of Freedom and Change said they would present a roadmap to the international community to reverse the coup. The meeting came after the army lifted the state of emergency imposed last year. Pray that negotiations will lead to a breakthrough and put Sudan back on course to achieve democracy and equality for its people.
As President Biden prepares to visit Israel this month, the World Council of Churches (WCC) urged him to press for an independent international investigation into the killing, last month, of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. WCC Acting General Secretary, Revd Prof. Ioan Sauca, also called on the Israeli government to halt plans to forcibly evict up to 1,200 Palestinian Bedouins from their homes and grazing lands in the South Hebron Hills, known as Masafer Yatta, in the West Bank. His intervention followed an Israeli High Court decision to approve the evictions in a move that critics believe contravenes international law.
The battle to stop the trafficking of the deadly drug Captagon, being produced in Syria, continues. Jordan announced that it has captured some 900,000 tablets being transported from Syria this month. Two weeks ago, Iraqi officials said they prevented a million pills from being brought across their border. Saudi Arabia has reported seizing almost 500,000, while Turkish authorities said they seized more than 6 million pills in May alone. All point back to Syria, and an officially sanctioned narco-economy that is generating foreign cash for its sanctions-hit government – regardless of the harm it causes to lives across the Middle East.
There is some respite for war-ravaged Yemen this month. The truce between Houthi rebels and Yemeni government forces has been extended for another two months. The parties have been at war since 2015, resulting in one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world today with millions facing hunger, poverty, displacement, and absence of health care. The truce has led to increased fuel supplies for the country, and even commercial flights resuming to Sana’a after almost six years. A new UN plan was presented to parties in June, which many see as a potential breakthrough. Let us pray for this and ask that the pause is not seen as an opportunity for players to renew their capabilities; some reports suggested that Houthis are using the truce to bring in more military vehicles to the besieged city of Taiz. Time will tell how it all works, but at least the people of Yemen will have access to much needed aid and supplies for two more months.
Lastly, the UK is preparing to host an international Ministerial Conference to Promote Freedom of Religion or Belief (5-6 July) in London. Government and parliament members from around the world will meet with faith and civil society leaders in order to urge greater global action on security and freedom for people to follow the beliefs of their choice. A 2019 report commissioned by the UK government found that Christianity is the most persecuted faith in the world. SAT-7 will be engaging through the UK FoRB Forum and highlighting the issue at summer events. Please pray for the impact of this conference.