New developments are taking us into some uncharted territories in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Yet the familiar cycles of violence and patterns of control prevail. The plight of Middle Eastern Christians has been highlighted this month by an interim report commissioned by the UK government, which warned that they face being “wiped out” from parts of the region.
Calls for change
After deposing long-term presidents in Algeria and Sudan, peaceful protesters are continuing to demand genuine change, even while the military – the most powerful institution in both countries – resists the calls. Both countries know that ousting one authoritarian leader is no guarantee of reform. An interesting sign in both Algeria and Sudan has been that Christian communities have added their voices to the calls for greater democracy and transparency.
In Sudan, the civilian opposition movement invited churches to participate by singing and praying at a 14 April demonstration, telling them, “You have suffered sectarian and psychological restrictions for years … [which have left you] without the right to worship freely”. Sudan Evangelical Synods head, Rafat Mussad, urged the thousands of protesters gathered outside the army headquarters to “build our new Sudan based on love and selflessness”. Pray that this hope will be realised.
In neighbouring Libya, however, peace and democracy are ever distant following an assault on the capital Tripoli by eastern commander Khalifa Haftar. More than 350 have been killed, including at least 22 civilians, and more than 2,000 have been wounded, according to the UN. Some 50,000 residents have been displaced by the fighting. Haftar’s attempt to seize the capital from the UN-recognised government of national accord is the latest threat to the stability of the country.
In Turkey, the electoral authorities finally agreed to the application by President Erdogan’s AKP to annul the results of mayoral elections in Istanbul on 31 March, won by Ekrem Imamoglu of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). Erdogan has accused the opposition parties of cheating and claimed there were irregularities in the way the election was run. Erdogan catapulted to national politics after becoming mayor of Istanbul some 22 years ago, and the city has been under his and his party’s control ever since. The move to annul the election and ask for a new one in June was unprecedented and has attracted widespread criticism both domestically and globally. While some have called for opposition parties not to take part in the election re-run in June, there is a new momentum and energy behind these groups who all seem set to unite and participate again. The election annulment caused a massive drop in the value of the Turkish lira, and an economic crisis looms as inflation soars.
Old cycles of conflict
In the Holy Land, the latest outbreak of violence saw militants from Gaza launch more than 600 rockets into Israel, taking at least four Israeli lives; Israel responded with a heavy bombardment claiming more than 25 lives. Both sides eventually agreed a ceasefire, which is currently holding, but the UN envoy to the Middle East warned on Monday (13 May) that the risk of another Israel-Hamas war “remains imminent”.
The warning comes as Jared Kushner, US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, is expected to announce his peace plan for the territory. Few observers are hopeful, given the closeness of the current US administration to an Israeli president and coalition government that show little sign of honouring either the promises of the Oslo Accords or the aspirations of the Palestinian people.
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Meanwhile, tensions between the US and Iran are ratcheting up again. US officials have reported threats to US forces and their allies from Iran, but have given few details about the exact nature of the threat. Earlier this month, the US sent an aircraft carrier to the Middle East in response to what officials described as “troubling and escalatory indications and warnings.” Tehran subsequently announced it was suspending commitments under the 2015 international nuclear deal, and called on other signatories to act to protect Iran from US sanctions. The Iranian Rial has hit a record low, and inflation is soaring as a result of the sanctions, which the UK and EU are coming under intense US pressure to impose also.
Old patterns of conflict are also being replayed in Syria. Idlib, the last rebel-held area of the country, has been recognised as a military de-escalation zone under an agreement between Russia, Turkey and Iran, who all have interests in the conflict. There have been serious infringements of the ceasefire on both sides, but now Syria, with Russian support, has launched heavy assaults in what may be the final effort to reclaim the territory. Once home to 1.5 million citizens, Idlib has been hosting around the same number of Syrians who were evacuated there from other towns retaken by government forces.
Persecution of Christians
The persecution of Christians around the world has come into the spotlight in the UK with the beginning of a government enquiry into the issue. Rt Revd Philip Mountstephen, the Anglican Bishop of Truro, presented his interim report to UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt on 2 May. The treatment of Christians in the MENA was particularly highlighted, with the report stating that the main impact of “genocidal acts against Christians is exodus”, warning that Christianity faced being “wiped out” from parts of the region. It showed that a century ago Christians comprised 20% of the population in the MENA, but since then the proportion has fallen to less than 4%.
People in parts of the region are, however, coming to Christ in growing numbers – a movement in Iran that continues to concern the government. Intelligence minister, Mahmoud Alavi, recently met with clerics to describe measures he is taking to stem the numbers. He said Christian converts are being “summoned” to explain why they have changed their faith. The intelligence ministry and Iran’s leading seminary are also sending representatives to areas where the underground church is growing fastest.
Although Iraq’s Christian population has fallen substantially since 2003, thousands of those who remain filled streets and squares for Orthodox Easter celebrations on 28 April in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, and in Quaraqosh in the Nineveh plains. Christians were driven out of Quaraqosh when Islamic State (IS) militants seized control of the town in 2014. Since then, around half the Christian population has returned following the weakening and final collapse of the IS caliphate. The picture for Iraqi believers is mixed, however, with many reluctant to return to broken towns and concern over the influence of Iran-backed militias that have established themselves in the Nineveh area.
So what is new in the Middle East? And what is old? The search for peace, good governance, fairness, justice and dignity continues while political leaders and foreign actors continue to pursue their own personal agendas and interests.