Last weekend (15 May) citizens of Lebanon voted in parliamentary elections, for the first time since the 2019 “17 October Protests” over economic mismanagement and the unaccountability of political elites.
There was much uncertainty over this election despite the wholesale anger with sitting politicians who are blamed for Lebanon’s economic crisis and its 2020 Beirut explosion. Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his Future Party did not participate while many new parties and candidates stood as part of a movement for change.
It was a mood that was reflected on Tuesday (17 May) when results showed a significant shift in parliament. The bloc of parties led by Iran-backed Hezbollah and including President Aoun’s Free Patriotic Party lost their majority. Several Hezbollah-backed candidates and allies lost their seats to anti-establishment candidates who claimed a total of 15 seats in the 128-member parliament. Pray for agreement on a new prime minister-elect and the formation of a new government. Pray that negotiations with the IMF will enable the country to return from bankruptcy and ask God’s help for SAT-7’s Lebanon team as they support viewers during this difficult time.
“Take courage” churches say
“Take Courage, Do Not Be Afraid” (Matt 14:27) is the theme of the 12th General Assembly of the Middle East Council of Churches, meeting this week (16-20 May) in Wadi Natrun, Egypt. Patriarchs, bishops and senior leaders attending represent the region’s four church families – Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Evangelical and Catholic – and 14 million Christians. As they focus on Jesus’ command not to fear, they are listening to the challenges and hopes in each of their countries. In their opening meeting, they denounced the conflicts and crises the region is undergoing and stressed attachment to faith in Christ as the source of hope to enable believers to remain in their lands. Please pray as church leaders work to define a future vision for cooperation and humanitarian goals.
Wave of sorrow at journalist’s shooting
Sorrow swept the Arab world following the 12 May killing of veteran television journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in the Occupied West Bank. Shireen was a Palestinian American Christian journalist working for Al Jazeera and a trusted voice in viewers’ homes across the region. She was shot dead while covering an Israeli raid in Jenin. Eye-witnesses, including a colleague who was wounded, insisted that they had been shot by Israeli forces. Israeli officials initially disputed this but later said Shireen could have been killed in error. The UN Security Council called for a transparent and impartial investigation.
The situation deteriorated further when Israeli police beat and kicked mourners and pall bearers as they attempted to carry her coffin from St Joseph’s hospital in East Jerusalem to a Christian cemetery in Jerusalem’s Old City. Police were attempting to remove Palestinian flags from her coffin and to stop chants of Palestinian nationalism. On Monday (16 May) the leaders of 15 Christian denominations in Jerusalem strongly condemned the “violent intrusion” of police into the funeral and hospital grounds.
While fellow journalists paid tribute to Abu Akleh’s humility and professionalism, her brother, Tony Abu Akleh, said he hoped his sister’s death could be an opportunity for Israelis and Palestinians to reach peace, “despite how bitter and painful it is for Palestinians and for everyone.”
The UAE has lost its president, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan. He came to office in 2004, although poor health stopped him from playing an executive role for the last decade. The current ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum, will serve as interim president before the seven emirates come together to choose a successor. A long list of world leaders are heading to the UAE to express their condolences.
News also came of Egyptian soldiers being attacked and killed by Islamic State terrorists in Sinai. The group has claimed responsibility for the attack that killed five Egyptian soldiers and wounded others. This follows reports that more than a hundred people have been killed in Afghanistan during the last month from attacks by IS affiliates. While the group seems forgotten by many in the West, its networks and members remain a major threat.
Thousands of people in Tunisia have again protested against President Kais Saied, demanding a return to free elections monitored by an independent electoral commission. Saied dissolved parliament and assumed all executive and legislative powers last summer. Many fear that his plans to replace judicial and electoral officials and bodies are a bid to control the judiciary as well as the potential elections he has promised to hold.
North Africa tensions
Long-running tensions between Algeria and Morocco over the disputed Western Sahara territories have become entangled with developments in Ukraine. Increased energy prices brought about by the Russian invasion have prompted Spain and Morocco to explore increased trade in energy. But Spain also receives natural gas from Algeria, which last year froze relations with Morocco. Algiers reacted angrily to the news that Spain might offer some gas supplies to Morocco. Spain was also at odds with Algeria when it recently backed a new model proposed by Morocco for the Western Sahara. This would see it as an autonomous region within Morocco. Algeria backs the Polisario Front, an indigenous movement in Western Sahara that is seeking independence. From 1975, when Morocco annexed the region after decolonisation from Spain, the Front fought an insurgency until a 1991 ceasefire. There are worries that the new model could reignite hostilities in Western Sahara and even between Algeria and Morocco.
Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports also continues to affect food supplies in countries ranging from Afghanistan to Syria. SAT-7 viewers in Syria, impacted by the country’s own devastating war and the latest economic squeeze, said that most people have only a few hours of electricity a day and are struggling financially. George, a young viewer of SAT-7 KIDS, said, “The war ended but we can’t return now to our home. We go to school and church, but we can’t go outside alone because there have been kidnappings. The church is helping us to grow spiritually but can’t afford to help us financially. Please pray for the children in Syria because many don’t have food, so they search for scraps in the rubbish.”
Russia, meanwhile, has been transporting agricultural products from invaded territories in Ukraine to Syria and other Middle Eastern countries. The European Union is working on creating a land corridor to Poland’s Baltic Sea ports to circumvent the blockade.
The crisis has also affected the food chain in Iran. Inflation for some wheat-based staples increased more than 300 per cent, triggering protests in several cities. Internet outages appeared to be government attempts to prevent online protests and the organisation of rallies.
These interventions came in the month that annually marks Press Freedom Day (3 May). Nine Middle East countries fall in the bottom 20 out of 180 nations in the Press Freedom Index with Iran faring worst in 178th place. To highlight the issue, SAT-7 Persian language show Insiders invited Europe-based Iranian journalist Fred Petrossian to explain the importance of press freedom and the current situation in Iran.
Despite legislation to protect freedom of expression, Petrossian said Iran jailed 348 journalists in 2018; pressure is exerted on journalists’ families; and the Ministry of Guidance can close media outlets without giving a reason. He also explained how press freedom is related to freedom of belief and freedom of assembly. At least five Christians in Iran were sentenced to periods of two to ten years in prison for church activities last month.
A SAT-7 Afghan viewer working for Hazara News, a news site for Afghanistan’s Hazara minority, told Insiders, “As a Hazara political activist my life is not safe. It wasn’t safe when I was in Afghanistan and it isn’t even now I am in Iran. I hope that channels like yours will help the oppressed journalists in Afghanistan be heard.”
Afghan women also faced even more draconian restrictions this month. Contrary to promises that their freedoms would be defended, girls and women have been ordered to wear head-to-toe clothing in public and only leave their homes with good reason. The country’s new rulers are massively rolling back advances women had made in their country. Many had attended university, some 400,000 were employed as civil servants, and 69 were elected to parliament. Some brave female activists, nevertheless, continue to protest. Pray for Afghanistan’s women.