Amid fragile and faith-stretching developments in The Middle East and North Africa, recent weeks also brought signs of hope. Syria’s chaotic violence has created a fresh wave of Christian refugees, but Iranian believers are standing firm under pressure, Turkish Christians are taking heart from government moves, and there is a growing consensus that now is the time for the region’s Christians to play a larger part in their societies.
Difficult developments continued to unfold across the region over the last few weeks. Without a doubt, Syria has grabbed most of the attention. A plan developed by Kofi Annan with the backing of the United Nations and Arab League offered an opportunity to end the violence and allow humanitarian groups to bring in aid. Tragically, the opportunity seems to have been missed. Even though the Assad regime promised to abide by the deadlines and framework of the plan, Syrian security forces continued their clampdown and use of excessive military force. The number of Syrians who have fled to neighboring countries has increased every passing day and the violence near the borders with Lebanon and Turkey has raised fears of a possible overspill of the conflict.
Diplomatic pressure remains the best option for change so long as Russia and China continue to block any stronger UN Security Council response and Russia and Iran supply weapons to the Assad regime. Key regional and international players, including Turkey and the United States, are working on strengthening the political capacities of opposition groups and leveraging international pressure for Assad to leave.
Meanwhile, the last round of sanctions against Iran has forced the government there to return to the table for negotiations on the country’s nuclear programme. A first meeting between the key countries was held in Istanbul, and all representatives expressed surprisingly positive feelings over its progress. Another meeting is scheduled to be held in Iraq in late May. A series of statements from officials and experts from Iran, Israel and the USA have eased tensions and raised hopes that Iran might compromise on its nuclear energy plans.
While the Iranian nuclear weapons issue seems to be cooling off, the new power dynamics in the Middle East are unsettling Israel’s regional relations. The new political forces in Egypt are threatening the good relations Israel and Egypt enjoyed during the Mubarak years. Crumbling stability in the Sinai region of Egypt and growing tensions with Egypt’s new political rulers are leading Israel to seek to increase its military presence in its south-west borders and Sinai. There are also reports that Israel is building a high concrete wall along its borders with Lebanon.
As for Egypt, a chaotic process of establishing presidential candidates continues to scare off foreign investors and postpone much-needed structural reforms. While Islamist parties declare their aim of bringing religious rule, neither they nor the so-called liberal parties are offering any concrete policies to prevent a fast-approaching financial meltdown of the country.
Father, we pray that the region will know your peace, that you will bless and guide the leaders, soften their hearts and stands and lead them on the path towards peace.
Persecution and violence continue to challenge Christians in the region, but many are drawing on their faith to withstand the pressures and are being energised to make a greater impact in their communities.
Christians in Iran continue to face a major clampdown on their activities. More than 200 believers have been arrested so far in 2012. Some were immediately released but others have been held for prolonged periods. Around 20 or so are believed to be still in prison, all awaiting trial or a verdict on accusations brought against them. Ethnic minority churches, such as Syriac and Armenian congregations, also face immense pressure not to accept converts into their churches and have been banned from using the Farsi language, understood by the Iranian majority in their main Friday services.
There are growing concerns for hundreds of thousands of Christian asylum seekers trapped across the Middle East. Tens of thousands fleeing violence in Syria are swelling the ranks of those already waiting to be relocated or find a chance to restart their lives in other countries. Christians from Iraq and Syria are living in limbo in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Without work and access to state health services, they rely on rapidly depleting life savings, illegal work and support from relatives. Please pray for them in your prayers and do encourage your church to find ways to be involved in ministries that seek to help them.
In Egypt, the process for the election of a new Pope for the Coptic Orthodox Church has begun. The new leader will assume his ministry in one of the most difficult times for the Coptic Church since Egypt gained its independence 60 years ago. Let us all pray that the Lord will guide everybody involved and anoint the new head of His church.
Turkey gives cause for praise. Good news for the country’s Christians continues to emerge. The Turkish government has officially approved the return of properties and land confiscated from the Greek and Armenian communities over the last 80 years. At the end of April, the Turkish parliamentary committee drafting the new Turkish constitution held an official meeting with representatives of the Turkish evangelical churches to hear their concerns and requests for the new constitution. This was another historic development for Turkish Christians who have to date been seen as a threat by the Turkish state.
Most encouraging of all, amid the region’s tide of conflict and change, there is an overall growing consensus and commitment across the Church in the Middle East on the need to be bold and engage with the wider society and politics. Christians in Egypt are pursuing new bold ways to do so. Representatives of the Protestant churches in the country recently met with the Muslim Brotherhood to discuss Muslim–Christian relations. Such initiatives are promising signs that the church might indeed emerge from these difficult days much more vitalised than ever before.
Father, we pray for your church. We pray that you will give them strength and wisdom as they engage with their societies. Protect them, guide them and enable them as they step out to serve you and their fellow citizens.
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