A year ago, Sudan stood out as the North African country where the signs of change were brightest, despite endemic poverty and a legacy of authoritarian rule and rebel movements. But on 25 October this year, the transition towards civilian rule and democracy came to an abrupt halt. Military forces arrested civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and other senior officials. Army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan announced a state of emergency and dissolved the transitional government.
Al-Burhan said the military had stepped in to “safeguard” the transition and keep it on the “correct course”. Last week (11 November) al-Burhan installed a new army-led Sovereign Council with himself as its head. The US and other nations said that al-Burhan’s choice of civilian members of the council broke transitional arrangements that civilians should be nominated by the Forces for Freedom and Change coalition. Demonstrations attended by thousands across major cities have been dispersed with tear gas and gunfire.
There were fears, too, for the country’s progress in religious freedom. The apostasy law and flogging for blasphemy were both banned in 2020 and the Minister of Religious Affairs and Endowment had stressed that his ministry “now supports religious freedom for all and stands equidistant from all religions”. The chief executive of Christian human rights organisation Release International warned that “a window of opportunity towards religious freedom in Sudan could be about to close”. Please pray for Sudan.
In Iraq, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi survived an assassination attempt this month (7 November). Officials said assailants used a small drone armed with explosives to attack his house in Baghdad’s heavily fortified green zone. The type of explosive and drone used led some to blame militias linked to Iran-backed political parties. They had been involved in violent protests in previous days after they lost dozens of parliamentary seats in the 6 October elections. Throughout the election period there were reports of intimidation of other political parties. International leaders condemned the assassination attempt, and Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose party won most parliamentary seats, called it a terrorist act designed to “return Iraq to a state of chaos to be controlled by non-state forces”. Whoever and whatever motive was behind the attack, it seems to have strengthened the prime minister politically.
The stability of Lebanon was rocked again last month (14 October) when supporters of two Shia parties, Hezbollah and Amal, marched through a Christian area of Beirut demanding the removal of the judge investigating the Beirut port explosion. Some of the marchers were armed and came under fire from snipers, allegedly from members of the Lebanese Forces, a Christian political party. A five-hour gun battle ensued on the border line of a district that saw the outbreak of the country’s brutal sectarian civil war (1975-90). New Prime Minister Nijab Mikati has refused to remove judge Tarek Bitar who is leading the probe into the explosion. Most Beirut residents want to see those responsible held accountable for the blast, although many in the political elite seem keen to shield themselves from scrutiny.
In Turkey, President Erdogan’s threats to deport the ambassadors of 10 Western nations, over a statement they issued on the prolonged detention of a Turkish civil society activist, opened a new rift with the West. The Biden administration subsequently chose to exclude Turkey and Hungary from its upcoming global conference on democracy. Meanwhile, the Turkish lira continued to plummet against the US dollar, and prices of food, medicines and energy skyrocketed. Polling suggests that only a third of voters would now support Erdogan’s party in an election.
Stung by scorpions
The impact of climate change and more extreme weather conditions keeps producing unprecedented natural events in the region. As powerful storms and floods washed across southern Egypt, reports said more than 500 people were stung by scorpions. The heavy rains swept the scorpions – some among the most deadly in the world – from burrows in the sand into streets and homes. After this month’s COP26 climate change meetings in the UK, Egypt will host COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh next year. Although environmental care has been neglected historically in the region, the Middle East is the most water-stressed area in the world and the impact of climate change on water security and heat have become pressing concerns.
On the political front, Egyptian President Al-Sisi has lifted state of emergency restrictions in place since the suicide bombings of two Coptic churches on Palm Sunday 2017. The restrictions had been renewed every three months, but the president said they were no longer required as Egypt has become “an oasis of security and stability in the region.”
Al-Sisi also struck a positive note for religious freedom while announcing a new five-year strategy on human rights reform. He said, “If someone tells me they are neither Muslim nor Christian nor a Jew, or that he or she does not believe in religion, I will tell them, ‘You are free to choose’.” Al-Sisi also referred to the ID card that all Egyptians have and that states their religion, saying, “We are all born Muslims and non-Muslims by ID card and inheritance. Have you ever thought of…searching for the path until you reach the truth?” His apparent endorsement of the freedom to choose your faith was especially surprising in Egyptian society where the law still stipulates up to five years in prison for blasphemy and has been used against Christians and atheists.
The new human rights strategy was welcomed by Dr Andrea Zaki, head of the Protestant Churches of Egypt, who said, “This document is positive and important, and will impact the whole Egyptian mentality toward the ‘other’”. Some were more skeptical, noting the many restrictions on the press and on free speech and the prosecution of thousands of government critics.
Another initiative that is promoting peaceful coexistence in Egypt has celebrated ten years of dialogue between Christians and Muslims. The House of the Family (Beit al-Ayla) was formed in the wake of the bombing of Two Saints Church in Alexandria in 2011 to promote the unity of Egyptians, regardless of religious affiliation. It is co-chaired by the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University in Cairo and the Coptic Pope and now has branches in 15 Egyptian governorates.
No place to worship
Freedom of religion is noticeably absent in Iran, despite Article 13 of the Iranian Constitution guaranteeing freedom of worship for Muslims, Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians. As part of a #Place2Worship campaign, ten organisations have written to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, asking her to seek answers from the Iranian regime to the question of “where Persian-speaking Christians can gather to worship freely without risking harassment and imprisonment on excessive charges”. They pointed out that Iranian Christians – both converts to Christianity and Assyrian and Armenian Christians who wish to worship in the national language – currently have no place where they can worship collectively, in violation of Iran’s constitution and international law. Videos by Christians who have served prison sentences were also sent to the Iranian government, asking the same question.
In stranger than fiction news, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of Libya’s former ruler, Muammar al-Gaddafi, has registered to run in the first presidential elections in the country next month. He was once seen as a potential reformer as his father aged, but his support for the violent clampdowns on protests ten years ago corrected this perception. The country is still divided between two centres of power in the east and west, with various militant groups scattered across the country. It is unclear what Saif al-Islam Gaddafi stands for, or what backing he has, except some appeal to return to an imagined era of stability in the past. The other candidates, General Khalifa Haftar and PM Abdulhamid al-Dbeibah, who leads the UN backed government, are more plausible contenders, although neither are unifying figures.
In Tunisia, thousands of protestors continued demonstrating against President Kais Saied, who suspended parliament four months ago and has assumed full control of government. Police clashed with protestors demanding the restoration of parliament. Although Saied’s critics see his seizing of power as a coup attempt, undoing the 2011 revolution, he also has his supporters. They share his belief that political conflict and party politics weakened the economy and paralysed the country. While parliament remains suspended, Saied has appointed a 24-member government which includes ten women and is headed by a female prime minister for the first time in the country’s history.
From Sudan to Tunisia, the region remains turbulent and unpredictable; a confusing dance of steps forward and steps backward. Continue to hold the Middle East and North Africa and the Christians who seek to be salt and light there in your prayers.