Scarcely a day passes before a new tragedy unfolds in Syria. Initial hopes that Kofi Annan’s UN and Arab League-backed peace plan might stop the violence and usher a new era of reform and political change have faded. Movements of the small number of UN observers allowed into the country were hindered by the regime, yet they witnessed and reported serious human rights abuses. The world was shocked by the reports of over 100 people, 49 of them children, being brutally murdered in what is now being termed the Houla massacre. And last week we heard of another mass killing at Qubair. Russia and China continue to block a strong UN Security Council stand on the country; Iran and Russia continue to supply it with weapons.
The results of the first round of Presidential elections in Egypt provoked intense reactions. While the Muslim Brotherhood candidate was expected to attract a larger number of votes, no one foresaw a former Prime Minister under Mubarak, Ahmed Shafiq, emerging as the second contender. Revolutionaries widely saw this as a betrayal of the revolution. However, it is clear that those who voted for Shafiq represent a silent but significant number of Egyptians – people who are fearful of instability and lawlessness and scared of a possible Islamist take-over following the Muslim Brotherhood’s control of Parliament. The lead up to the next round of elections is set to be intense.
Meanwhile, the warm waters of the Gulf continued to heat up. A much hyped meeting between Iran and the so-called P5 1 countries in Baghdad failed to deliver any concrete agreement over the future of Iran's controversial nuclear enrichment programme. Iran is facing the harshest sanctions in its history and acute problems in its economy. Combined with unrest in Iraq and Syria, the country finds itself in a very tight corner while Iran's entrenched position continues to fuel anxiety across the region. However, possibilities of a US or Israeli military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities seem unlikely and, even if attempted, would only achieve a short term slowdown of the nuclear programme.
While these large countries and regionally significant problems attract most attention, three North African countries have been showing early signs of potential crises. In Algeria, the regime had sought to pre-empt uprisings by offering limited reform and greater electoral freedom. However, 60 MPs, most of whom are Islamists, walked out of the Parliament in protest to alleged electoral fraud.
In Morocco, the beleaguered but still widely loved king also faced protests, this time organised by trade unions demanding economic improvements and better working conditions. The large-scale protests were among the largest the country has seen in recent years.
In Tunisia, while the country seem to be recovering from the impeachment of its long loathed President and genuine democratic reformation was getting under way, violent attacks by Salafist groups have caused worries for future stability.
Father, we pray that the political changes in the region will not open doors for violent or sinister groups to pursue their own aims. We pray that the people of the region will stand united and not allow such groups to disrupt and cause divisions in their societies. We pray for an immediate end to violence in Syria, Lord, and for your justice.
Amidst the annual Pentecost celebrations taking place across the region’s churches, a small celebration at the Syriac Orthodox church in Diyarbakir, Turkey, raised hopes for a rebirth of Turkey’s Syriac Christian community. The vast majority of Syriac Christians have fled the country, leaving their historic lands behind. However, a service – attended by Turkish state officials and representatives of Syriac communities around the world – appears to herald a new phase.
After the service, the street where the church is located was officially renamed Bar Salibi after a respected Syriac clergyman. The Turkish government is encouraging Syriac Christians to return to Turkey. Last month saw two further endorsements of the community. The first Syriac language monthly newspaper in Turkish history was officially launched and city authorities in Istanbul gave rare permission for the construction of a new Syriac church.
In Egypt, Coptic Christians found themselves the focus of angry reactions to last month’s first presidential election outcome. Many revolutionaries and Islamists publicly blamed the Copts for the surprise success of Ahmed Shafiq, a Mubarak-era politician. Copts were accused of betraying the 'revolution'. However, experts pointed out that not only Copts but all of those who voted for Shafiq did so out of fear and uncertainty about some of the new political players and worries over the deteriorating conditions in the country.
Meanwhile, headscarves and the rights of Christian minorities attracted wide attention in Jordan and beyond. A Christian woman was fired from her job after refusing to wear a headscarf. Managers at the Jordan Dubai Islamic Bank told Vivian Salameh and other Christian female staff to cover their heads. While some did, Ms Salameh refused and was eventually served notice. Ms Saleh is currently taking her employers to the court.
Christians in Syria continue to find themselves trapped amidst intensifying violence in the country. Until now, Christians have stayed out of the clashes between rebels and government forces and have not been directly targeted. However in May, an Armenian church and school in Homs were attacked by opposition groups. The properties were looted. Opposition fighters took over the school and started to use it as a base. As Syria’s economic situation worsens and the risk of falling victim to arbitrary violence grows, many Christians fear for their families and some are silently leaving for neighbouring countries.
Christians in Iran continue to need our prayers. Scores of Muslim-background Christians remain in detention and face an unknown future and more than hundred who have been released don't know whether they will be arrested again. Ethnic Christian churches continue remain under immense pressure not to accept converts into their churches and to use their own ethnic languages rather than Farsi, the national language.
Father, we pray for your Church. Lord continue to give Christians across this region strength and wisdom. Protect them from harm, false accusations and persecution.
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