The world’s eyes are on the Middle East this month, drawn by the courageous protests in Iran, a bombing in the heart of Istanbul and world gatherings in Egypt and Qatar for COP27 and the World Cup respectively.
Women-led protests in Iran calling for an end to repression have continued into a ninth week. This is despite the arrests of around 16,000 demonstrators and killing of at least 326, including 43 children, by Iran’s security forces. A reported 10,000 people processed to the grave of Kurdish-Iranian woman Jhina Mahsa Amini, 40 days after her death in custody, turning the traditional 40-day mourning custom into a powerful protest. In a generation more aware of how people live in other countries and less cowed by the security apparatus, many young women are defying the clerical regime’s hijab rule. Protesters who may have called for reform in previous decades are now demanding the overthrow of the government.
Iran’s rulers have reacted in familiar ways. The mostly hardline Parliament has voted in favour of the death penalty for “key perpetrators” in order to deter others. The Revolutionary Court this week gave its first death sentence. A man accused of setting fire to a government building was found guilty of “enmity against God”, one of several charges likely to be punished by death. The Norway-based Iran Human Rights NGO says at least 20 others face similar charges. Amid the heightened tensions, SAT-7’s Persian channels this month joined a global prayer campaign for Iran by starting every live programme with five minutes of prayer for its viewers in the country.
Anti-government rallies have been largest in Kurdish populated provinces. This has led Tehran to blame Kurdish separatists in northern Iraq for fomenting them and to launch several cross-border rocket attacks on Kurdish-Iranian opposition groups there.
Istanbul terror attack
In Türkiye, Sunday’s bomb blast in one of the busiest shopping areas of Istanbul once again highlighted the risks the region faces from terrorists. Some six people were killed and 81 injured. Turkish authorities arrested a Syrian woman they believe to be a member of the outlawed militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The PKK, however, has denied involvement.
It is not yet known who is behind the attack and what their aims are. There have been numerous acts of terrorism in Türkiye carried out by the PKK, by Islamic State and even by networks linked to the Assad regime in Syria. The last terror attack in Istanbul was the 1 January 2017 nightclub shooting.
The incident comes in the run-up to the centenary of the Turkish republic and parliamentary and presidential elections next June. With the economy struggling and inflation passing 80 per cent, both the ruling AKP and multiple opposition parties are gearing up for the polls. At the moment, President Erdogan still maintains a strong lead, though it is not clear whether opposition parties will agree on a single candidate who will match his popularity.
Meanwhile, an event at the European Parliament titled “Freedom of Religion in Türkiye,” considered the increasing pressure on the country’s Christians including the expulsion of 60 foreign Christian workers since 2020. A European Parliament report in June strongly criticised a deterioration of “fundamental rights”, including freedom of thought, conscience and religion in the country. Among the report’s appeals were for reforms to allow non-Muslim groups to obtain legal recognition more easily and have the right to train their leaders. No in-country training centres are currently allowed for Christian clergy.
On the opposite side of the Mediterranean, Egypt is currently hosting COP27, the annual climate change summit that brings together all major nations alongside UN representatives, experts and activists. SAT-7 attended, as the only Christian media channel, to interview representatives of Christian NGOs and young people. Tackling climate change is particularly important for the Middle East and North Africa. It is already seeing the impact of increased temperatures that could make life impossible in large swathes of the region. The historic rivers Tigris and Euphrates are drying up. Disputes over the Nile are set to deepen. Syria saw its worst drought in 70 years in 2021, while North African countries have suffered exceptional forest fires. As lands become increasingly less habitable and drought affects food security, mass displacement and unrest become major threats.
The biggest sports event ever to take place in the Middle East starts on Sunday. The 2022 World Cup finals are being hosted by Qatar (20 November-18 December). Selecting Qatar was controversial from the outset: there were allegations of vote buying; questions about holding the event in the usual World Cup period of June-July when temperatures reach 40°C; concerns about the nation’s employment practices for workers; and about its strict laws. The lead-up to the tournament has again drawn criticism for Qatar’s human rights conditions (as has Egypt’s hosting of COP27). Qatar’s treatment of the hundreds of thousands of mostly Asian foreign workers involved in building new stadia has also attracted close scrutiny. Although the Cup has led Qatar to reform its labour laws, many workers continue to be exploited. Below the radar, however, the Bible Society in the Gulf will distribute thousands of Scriptures to workers and visitors during the tournament. Thousands of migrant Christians of many denominations are able to worship in recognised churches in Qatar although evangelism of Qatari citizens is forbidden.
Spotlight on Bahrain
Sitting in the Gulf waters just north of Qatar, Bahrain was Pope Francis’ destination earlier this month (3-6 November). There he addressed the closing meeting of the Bahrain Forum for Dialogue: East and West for Human Co-existence. Over 200 global faith leaders and scholars had gathered to discuss their role in promoting world peace. His visit, including a worship service in Bahrain’s national stadium, was also a landmark for Bahrain’s 80,000 Catholics of whom around 1,500 are Bahraini nationals. There were Christians here as early as the 6th century. Today, Bahrain has some 19 churches of various denominations, serving a mostly expatriate workforce.
Meanwhile, the Anglican Bishop of Truro who authored a landmark report for the UK Foreign Office on support for persecuted Christians, spoke to church leaders in Lebanon. Talking to the Middle East Council of Churches, he praised Lebanon’s churches for their welcome of refugees and urged leaders to support religious pluralism and equality. He told them: “Yours is the only country in this region with a studied commitment to religious pluralism and diversity. I know that has often been a real challenge, but I do urge you not to give up on it. It is vital not just for this country but for the wider world too.” Next year, Lebanon will host the meeting of the International Religious Freedom of Belief Alliance, a new network of nations that have committed to upholding these rights.
Concern in the Holy Land
In neighbouring Israel, the unceasing political energy of former PM Benjamin Netanyahu saw him win another election, despite having three court cases against him. He achieved this only by allying himself with ultranationalist and religious radical parties and is expected to include them in the coalition government he must now form. This is much to the alarm of many in the country who see this as a deepening expression of the far right and religious nationalists, with traditional centre and left-wing groups being marginalised. Palestinians are especially fearful given the extreme rhetoric two of the right-wing partners have used. What this will mean for the relations Israel began to enjoy with other countries since the 2020 Abraham Accords and with the Biden administration is unclear. The election result comes at a time of heightened violence. Over 100 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces and 19 Israelis killed in street attacks by Palestinians this year.
Continue to remember Yemen in your prayers. A heart-breaking report by Associated Press said at least 10 children have died in the country and many more have been poisoned after receiving expired cancer treatment medicines. The smuggled medicines were used in multiple cancer clinics. Yemen’s conflict has dragged on since 2014 when Houthi rebels backed by Iran took over parts of the country and forced the government into exile. More than 100,000 have died in the fighting and a six-months truce which allowed relief agencies to bring healthcare and food into the country collapsed in October, with each side blaming the other.
Order our Silent Night Advent Prayer Guide to pray for the Middle East and North Africa this December. It has a special focus on persecuted Christians and mixes reflections from Christians in the region, testimonies and country information.