2011 began with high expectations for new freedoms and prosperity across much of the Arab World. Three years on there is a palpable sense of disappointment and frustration. SAT-7 CEO, Dr Terence Ascott, offers a country-by-country overview of what has happened since and untangles a confusing picture.
Beginning in January 2011, a wave of uprisings swept away dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and triggered unrest in many corners of the region. What has happened since, however, reflects the differing histories, societies and interests of the centres of power in the region.
Egypt has been through two revolutions, has had a failed experiment with Political Islam and is now dealing with a low-level insurgency from recently outlawed members of the Muslim Brotherhood. The economy remains in tatters and elections later this year may take us full-circle, back to a President from the military establishment, with no neutral third party left to guarantee the independence of the judiciary and press. But, after the chaos of the past three years, the majority of Egyptians seem ready to re-embrace a more totalitarian structure if it means security and a revival in the economy.
Tunisia has also experimented with and been disappointed by Political Islam – but managed to make mid-course adjustments with less violence. In fact it remains, after Turkey, as one of best models of how a Muslim majority country can find the balance between religion and democracy.
But then there are the real failures! Libya has not yet managed to bring together the rebel forces that overthrew Kaddafi and remains divided along ethnic and tribal lines, with much of the country under no central authority. It has allowed Al-Qaida in the Maghreb to gain a foothold in the south and the country could yet become a failed state. Similarly, Al-Qaida have taken ground in Yemen, Iraq (Where Sunni Muslims feel marginalised by the Shi’a led government) and in Syria.
But, of all the failures of the Arab Spring, Syria stands out as the greatest tragedy. Over 7 million people (1 in 3 of the population) have been either internally displaced or are now refugees living in increasingly difficult circumstances in Lebanon, Jordan Turkey or Northern Iraq. If this situation is allowed to continue, it could make the Palestinian refugee situation seem like a sideshow.
But all this chaos, including the ongoing unrest in Morocco, The Gulf States, Turkey and even North and South Sudan is not just the random outcome of people coming out onto the streets to express their desire for greater personal freedoms, demanding to be treated with dignity. Behind most of these events are regional agendas and huge amounts of cash being invested in the overthrow of rival regimes.
Faultlines of division
Firstly, there is the more obvious split between Shi’a and Sunni populations, with Iran on one side and the Gulf States on the other. It is this rivalry that is aggravating the current conflicts in Iraq, Syria (The Assad family are Alawite, a sect of Shi’a Islam) and Lebanon. It is also fuelling social discontent in Bahrain (A Sunni monarchy with a Shi’a majority) and the Eastern Provinces of Saudi Arabia.
Then there are the splits within the Gulf States themselves, with Qatar funding the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Al-Qaida affiliated forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and Saudi bankrolling the Egyptian Government after the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood Presidency, and funding the more moderate rebels in Syria, some of whom are now in open conflict with the ISIS and its hard-line allies like the Al Nasra Front.
Then there are also the broader ideological differences across the region between those who want to see Islam as the primary or only source of law across the region and those who want a more non-sectarian democratic type of national constitution. And, the divisions go on!
Impact on the region’s Christians
But what has all this meant for the Christians of the Middle East? Well, firstly, they have, like many Iraqi’s, Syrians and Egyptians been caught up in the conflicts and street violence. But, being from a minority with no organised militia, they have often been a soft target for different sides, and have especially suffered from those Islamists who want to see an end to any Christian presence in such countries. This has fuelled the drain of Christians from the region – something that has been going on since the 1950’s (and earlier if we want to include the Armenian massacres after World War I). The number of Christians in Iraq, for instance, has dropped from about 1.2 million at the time Sadam Hussein fell to less that 300,000 today – with many of these being internally displaced. Some commentators are beginning to wonder if there will be any Christians left in some Arab Countries by the end of the next decade.
Secondly, the political and social turmoil in countries like Egypt, while causing some Christians to flee, has helped focus the resolve of many others and some would even call this a golden age of opportunity for the church! The recent discrediting of the Muslim Brotherhood (and, with it, the concept of Political Islam) in Egypt, together with the powerful witness of Egyptian Christians (who surprised many by responding with non-violence and forgiveness to the terrible attacks on their communities in Mid-August 2013) has obviously caused many Muslims in Egypt to have a new, long and thoughtful look at the Christian faith.
As we have seen in countries like Algeria and Iran, where there have been severe problems for the Church, there is often amazing church growth in the wake of such persecution. The Coptic Church, which itself has suffered greatly during the past two thousand years, especially under Rome, is often heard reminding its flock that, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”.
As a Christian Broadcaster, we have had the privilege to be at the front line and to witness the exciting but sometimes difficult changes since Mohammed Bouazizi , a Tunisian vegetable-seller set himself on fire to protest the injustice of life in his home country – an event that was the catalyst for uprisings across the region. We have been able to provide a platform for the Middle East Christians to speak prophetically into the situation, to defend the rights of the voiceless, to provide words of reconciliation and forgiveness, to bring HOPE and, as new constitutions are discussed, to lobby for a more pluralistic society with equal rights for all. And, above all, we have been able to make the Gospel available to all, even in areas where there remains no or little on-the-ground witness for Christ.
We have also seen a dramatic upturn in calls from seekers in Iran and Afghanistan; we have seen our viewership grow in countries like Saudi and Iraq, and we know that there is an increase in people everywhere wanting to know about the Christian Faith.
This is all Good News, but it comes at a price. For example, the August wave of attacks on Christians in Egypt was the most severe wave of persecution on Coptic Christians in the past 700 years. The Christians of the Middle East and North Africa, more than ever, need our ongoing support and prayers!
Since 1996, SAT-7 has been providing quality Christian television programming via satellite to viewers throughout the Middle East and North Africa – the whole Western end of the 10-40 Window! With an international headquarters in Cyprus and six channels, SAT-7 broadcasts in Arabic, Farsi, and Turkish. Find out more at www.sat7uk.org.