Tensions between powerful Middle East rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran were catapulted to new levels when drones set two Saudi Arabian oil refineries ablaze (14 September). The resulting damage halved the Gulf kingdom’s oil output and reportedly cut world crude oil supplies by over five per cent. Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed responsibility, but the US blamed Iran for the attacks and triggered fears of Saudi retaliation. So far Saudi officials seem to have little appetite for a military response. Though the attack demonstrates the vulnerability of Saudi’s vital oil installations, an escalation would be dangerous for the entire region.
The drone strikes follow a worrying pattern over the last year: attacks on oil tankers, infrastructure and transportation hubs – all hard to attribute with certainty, although signs seem to point to Iran and its networks. The US policy of applying “maximum pressure” on Iran has not halted its uranium development and has seriously ratcheted up tensions in the Gulf. Pray for peace and wisdom for all concerned.
The presidents of Turkey, Iran and Russia, meanwhile, met in Ankara as part of the “Astana talks” on Syria. They discussed the situation in rebel-held Idlib, as well as attempts to establish a new constitutional committee and facilitate the return of refugees and creation of safe zones. The Syrian civilians currently sheltering underground from government and Russian bombardments in Idlib do not have a voice at the table. Nor did the talks make much progress. Turkey still fears that Syria’s campaign to recapture Idlib will force hundreds of thousands of refugees towards its border. President Erdogan is also seeking a way to return a million Syrians already in Turkey to new safe areas in north Syria. The self-declared Kurdish administration controlling northern Syria however, view this as an attempt to change the population balance and undermine their areas of control. Solving fundamental differences in Syria still seems far away. Although Islamic State has lost its territory, its caliph in hiding, Abu Bakhr al-Baghdadi, released a new audio message urging IS militants to free the thousands of its members currently held in detention centres in Syria and Iraq.
Winds of change?
The signs of change in North Africa have been more positive. Tunisia, the country that sparked the Arab Spring, continues to offer some hope. The country held its second presidential elections since the ousting of dictator Ben Ali in 2011. Polling was peaceful and democratic. The two contenders who came top in a field of 24 candidates are both political outsiders, one a law professor and the other a businessman. They will now face a run-off election in October. Their emergence as front runners is seen as a rebuke to the established political figures. Businessman Nabil Karoui is seen as a populist who used his own media outlet to champion himself as a defender of the poor, despite facing corruption and tax evasion charges. His opponent, Kais Saied, had none of the financial and campaigning muscle of Karoui. He promised if elected to continue living in his own modest home. His conservative views, such as reintroducing the death penalty and rejecting equal inheritance rights for women, raised concerns. Yet his promise to decentralise the state strikes a chord with many who are worried about Tunisia’s most deprived areas.
The signs in Sudan are also positive. After a “sovereign council” of civilian and military leaders was formed a month ago, a new cabinet was sworn in. The 18-member executive, led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, includes four women and a former World Bank economist as finance minister. The group has the challenging task of steering the country over the next three years and preparing it for its first democratic government since dictator Omar al-Bashir was deposed in April. A priority will be to bring about economic recovery. It was shortages of basic foods and 40 per cent annual inflation that prompted the mass protests that overthrew Bashir.
The citizens of Israel have gone to the polls for the second time in six months. Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister since 2009, faces potential indictments on corruption charges, and if re-elected was hoping to find a way to achieve impunity. With 60 per cent of the vote counted at the time of writing, this looks doubtful. Netanyahu seems to have tied with his main opponent, Benny Gantz, and it is most likely that Avigdor Liebermann’s party, with 13 seats, will give its backing to Gantz. Many have seen the election as a referendum on Netanyahu himself. His pre-election promise to annex the Jordan valley areas of the Palestinian Territories and await President Trump’s peace proposals with a view to annexing all Israeli settlements would put the last nail in the coffin of the Oslo Accords’ “two-state solution” and leave no scope for a peace process. Critics, however, argue that such a solution was buried a good while ago.
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The situation of the churches in the region sometimes seems far from the political fray, though, of course, every believer in the Middle East and North Africa is affected by their country’s decision-makers. In Iran, for example, Christian families will feel threatened after the Minister for Education, Mohsen Haji Mirzaei, raised the spectre of children of Christian converts being banned from school. At a cabinet meeting he said that children who profess an unrecognised religious faith at school were engaging in “propaganda” and should be banned. Iran recognises only churches that serve its Armenian and Assyrian minorities. He appeared to rein back on the comment slightly in a later tweet but still added that “illegal sects [a term the government applies to Evangelical Christians and to Baha’i believers] should not be promoted in school, which is a place for legal education”.
A worrying campaign by authorities to close churches in Algeria also continues. Two more churches, both in Bejaia province, received orders to close on 21 August, and a leader of a third was questioned at length by authorities. In the case of the Prince of Peace Church in Agbou, Christians filled the building and initially convinced police not to seal it because the closure was invalid without a court order. Requests by church leaders and their attorney to meet with provincial officials were ignored.
Service was the theme of the third Face to Face Christian youth conference in Turkey, organised by Evangelical churches. Some 260 young people attended the four-day conference from many parts of Turkey and countries including Azerbaijan, Bulgaria and Germany. The programme included talks, workshops, worship, testimony-sharing and a talent competition. Pray for God’s guidance and enabling for all of these young servants in the Turkish Christian community.
In Iraq, Christians still face the threat of Islamic State sleeper cells and intimidation from Shia militias, most notably in the Christian town of Bartella, where Shia monuments have been placed close to Christian sites and a curfew has recently been imposed. In safer areas, however, Christians were free to celebrate the traditional September Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross (or Holy Cross Day). Fireworks, bonfires and an illuminated cross marked the day.