The Middle East situation and its effects on
Christians and Israel
The “Arab Spring”
The so-called Arab Spring was a remarkable series of events
including the following:
2010 Mohamed Bouazizi, a
Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire because the authorities had
confiscated his produce. This was the culmination of many years of such
maltreatment and it sparked protests in Tunisia and elsewhere, including
Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Oman, Syria and Yemen.
2011 The Tunisian President
fled to Saudi Arabia. A few days later protests in Egypt forced the Egyptian
President to resign.
March 2011 Protests against President
Assad began in Syria leading to a prolonged war with many atrocities.
October 2011 Lybian
President Gaddafi was killed after a 9-month conflict.
February 2012 The
President of Yemen resigned after protests.
June 2012 Mohammed
Morsi of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood was elected President of Egypt.
July 2013 Millions
of Egyptians demonstrated against Morsi forcing his resignation.
May 2014 Former
army chief Abdel Fatah al-Sisi was elected President of Egypt
Many people saw all this as a positive revolution which
would establish democracy in the Middle East. But it was not to be. Instead,
there were many sinister developments. One early example happened in August
2013 when Muslims set fire to over 70 Christian churches in Egypt. Since then
extreme Islamists have come to the fore, especially in Iraq, Syria and Lybia.
The most prominent is, of course, the so-called Islamic State (Isis). The
removal of dictators has opened the way to far more extreme leadership taking
over. This had happened much earlier when the Shah of Persia (Iran) was
overthrown in 1979 and replaced by hard-line Islamists. On June 29th
2014 Isis announced that it had re-established the Islamic Caliphate (global
Islamic state) led by the Caliph Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi. One Iraqi politician
said that the Arab Spring had become an Islamic Spring.
International chaos in the Middle East
Isis seems to be aiming at weakening Arab states and their
armies so that it will be able to gain more influence and make it easier to
‘liberate’ the Palestinians from Israeli control. Turkey, Iran and Israel are
the only strong states in the Middle East.
Syria and Iraq are, of course, deeply divided and largely
ungovernable. They are well on the way to becoming failed states. Isis (which
stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) is now in control of more than
half of Syria and controls all the border crossings between Syria and Iraq.
Their intermediate aim is a Middle East Islamic state which includes the
territories of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Israel. Syria is crucially important
for Isis because they see it as the heart of the Islamic State on the border of
Palestine. They see it as the road to Jerusalem. Isis is known to have some
chemical weapons but there is fear that they will gain more from Syrian
sources. Israel is afraid that Hezbollah, the Islamist group based in Lebanon,
also could get hold of Syrian chemical weapons and smuggle them into Lebanon.
Some experts are afraid that people could be exposed to biological weapons such
as anthrax, plague, and cholera which could cause pandemics that are very
difficult to control.
Iraq is divided between a Shia Muslim majority and a more
traditional Sunni minority. But Isis (which is Sunni extremist) also holds
large areas of the country and at times the Iraqi army has shown it is not up
to withstanding it.
Egypt initially accepted 300,000 Syrian refugees but since
Morsi was deposed has turned against them. President Sisi is authoritarian and
there have been unfair trials and an increasing number of executions. Morsi has
been sentenced to death and the Muslim Brotherhood has been outlawed.
Militant Islamists have mounted attacks particularly in
North Sinai. Hundreds of police and soldiers have been killed. One terrorist
group called Sinai Province has links with Isis.
Egypt receives financial support from the Saudis and the
Emirates. It is regarded as supporting Israel against Hamas in Gaza which is
seen as a terrorist group.
Iran is an oppressive regime which restricts human rights.
It is strongly opposed by the Saudis and the Gulf States. It co-operates with
Hezbollah in Lebanon to support President Assad of Syria. The US is, of course,
seeking to ensure that Iran cannot develop nuclear weapons. President Obama
stated in April 2015 that Iran will accept “the most robust and intrusive
inspections and transparency regime ever negotiated for any nuclear programme
in history. If Iran cheats, the world will know it. This deal is not based on
trust. It’s based on unprecedented verification.” However Israel is very suspicious
of the agreement and believes Iran will not keep to it. Clearly the Saudis
share this suspicion.
Jordan has received 600,000 Syrian refugees. This, together
with the surrounding chaos in Iraq and Syria is creating a serious crisis in
Jordan and fears that the conflict could spill over into its territory.
Kuwait is an oppressive regime which curtails freedom of
speech. David Cohen, Deputy Director of the CIA, once described Kuwait as the
“epicentre of fundraising for terrorist groups in Syria” However Kuwait is
regarded as an important ally by the West.
Lebanon has suffered by being caught up in battles between
countries such as Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia and it fears that the Syrian
conflict could spill over into its territory. Fears are also raised by the
strong connections between Iran and Hezbollah, which is based in Lebanon and is
regarded by many as a terrorist group.
It is a country where citizenship is only available to
members of one of 18 approved religious groups. Power is shared out between
these groups and, especially in the context of a weak state, this leads to an
acceptance of compromise.
Lebanon has one million Syrian refugees, the equivalent of
one fifth of the Lebanese population. The presence of the pro-Assad Shia group Hezbollah in the country has caused
violent reactions from the Sunni community
Since 2014 there has been civil war in Libya. Central
government has collapsed and the numerous militias are out of control. The
country is moving towards being a failed state. Libya is very dangerous and
journalists tend not to go there. Isis has moved into territory which is not
controlled by the state and set up training centres for extremists. It was from
there that the recent massacre in Tunisia was mounted.
Saudi Arabia is dominated by Wahhabism, a very strict
version of Sunni Islam. It is repressive and carries out severe punishments,
including many beheadings. No political parties are allowed. The Saudis, assisted
by Qatar, Kuwait and United Arab Emirates have funded Sunni rebels in Syria and
Iraq. However Saudi Arabia has 25% of the world’s oil supplies so western
governments want to maintain good relationships with the country despite its
bad human rights record. Hence Saudi Arabia has recently hosted a conference on
Human Rights run by the UN Human Rights Council. The country is also the
British arms industry’s largest customer.
Although the Saudis have funded Islamic fundamentalists
around the region, it has now rebounded on them as extremist groups are
threatening the Saudi leadership. They are also very threatened by the
extensive influence of Iran in the Middle East, especially in Iraq. They have
made it clear that if the US is not successful in preventing Iran developing nuclear
weapons they will acquire them too. It is thought that the Saudis funded 60% of
the development of the Pakistan nuclear weapons on the basis that they would be
allowed to obtain some of those weapons if necessary. Saudi Prince Turki bin
Faisal has said: “Whatever the Iranians have, we will have, too.”
Many Tunisians have joined Isis to fight in Syria and Iraq.
Anxieties in Turkey about growing Islamisation and the
authoritarianism of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister led to riots and
in 2015 Erdogan did not do too well in the election.
Turkey is very concerned to prevent the establishment of a
Kurdish state by both Syrian and Turkish Kurds. They are sending troops to
fight against the Syrian Kurds. The Turkish Kurds live in SE Turkey.
Turkey has accepted 1.8 million Syrian refugees.
There has been an undeclared civil war in Yemen for some
time. Iranian-backed rebels gained control of government institutions. The
relationship between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait is close, not least because about
half the Saudi army is of Kuwaiti origin. The Saudis are afraid of the Iranian
influence in Yemen and they are also afraid that Kuwait will become a failed
state controlled by terrorists. So in 2015 a Sunni Muslim coalition of nine
Arab countries plus Pakistan invaded Kuwait.
Much of the conflict in the Middle East is between the more
traditional Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims. They are at war with each other in
Iraq, Syria and Kuwait. Isis is an extreme form of Sunni Islam.
Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen are torn by war. They are
becoming failed states. Egypt is facing serious division. Saudi Arabia is an
oppressive, anti-Christian regime. Jordan and Lebanon feel threatened and
Turkey intends to prevent the Kurds establishing a state by violence if
In March 2015 a joint Arab military force was set up to face
the unstable situation in the Middle East. The 22 states involved in the Arab
League are to combine forces.
Many refugees have fled to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Other
refugees are crossing the Mediterranean to find safety in Europe - causing
problems within the EU.
The effects on Christians
One thing that complicates the position of Christians in
Muslim countries is military action by western nations which are seen as
Christian nations. Consequently, Muslim countries persecute Christians. The
Arab Spring and the growth of Isis has led to much greater oppression of
Christians in the Middle East.
In Egypt, where there is a long-established Christian community,
the removal of President Morsi in 2013 led to the worst persecution of
Christians in 1400 years. It was against Coptic Christians and 65 churches,
Christian bookshops, schools and convents were burned down, looted or
destroyed. There has been some similar persecution since then.
In recent years in Syria over 450,000 Christians have fled
and hundreds of thousands are in hiding. Christians and Christian leaders have
been abducted, ransomed or executed.
Since the 2003 Gulf War over a million Christians have fled
from Iraq. In 2014 when Isis captured Mosul and much of the traditional
Christian area around Nineveh 200,000 Christians fled to Kurdistan.
in Libya has meant that persecution has increased, with Christians being afraid
to meet together. The only religious gatherings allowed are Islamic. Isis has
Arabia officially bans churches and Christian meetings, even amongst ex-pats.
Sometimes the authorities take oppressive action to enforce this ban against
Christians meeting in homes. Bibles are prohibited. Converts from Islam to
Christianity face the death penalty. Nevertheless for economic and political
reasons the Saudis are treated as respected allies by western countries.
The Israeli perspective
I write as a friend of Israel but I am a genuine friend who,
unlike some Zionist Christians, faces up to her failings as well as defending
her when appropriate. She is not treating the Palestinians justly and currently
she is becoming increasingly isolated in the world through the unwise
leadership of her present government.
However, some of the criticism of Israel is unjust and there
is some which is based on thinly veiled anti-Semitism. In fact, some Christians
have decided that Israel is in the wrong and don’t wished to be confused by the
facts. There is a growing movement to boycott Israeli goods but, as Israel
points out, there is no such boycott of other countries deemed to be guilty of
injustice – Saudi Arabia, for example. It is essential that we seek to look at
the world through Israeli eyes, as well as through Palestinian eyes.
Israel is still affected by centuries of persecution and the
trauma of the Holocaust. She also knows that a large number of people dispute
her legitimacy and would like to see her destroyed. Against that background she
looks at the chaos in the Middle East around her – the extreme Islamism, the
wars, the advance of Isis (which is now speaking of taking over from Hamas and
‘liberating’ Palestine), the threat of Iran, which wants Israel destroyed,
gaining nuclear weapons after all (which is perceived as possible by the
Israelis and others) and the danger the Saudis would follow suit. Yes, Israel
should provide justice for the Palestinians but she also needs to protect
herself. After all, Isis is getting too close for comfort.
It is all very well for the Christian armchair critics in
the West to be calling for justice for the Palestinians. But they must also
take the fears of the Israelis seriously. Yes, of course, sometimes politicians
over-emphasise threats for political reasons but the fact is that Israel is
seriously threatened – and things will get worse.
We need to pray for the countries of the Middle East, for
Israel and for Christians in that region facing grave difficulties, persecution
and violent death. We should also recognise that the growing persecution of
Christians and the increasing threats to Israel are in harmony with the New
Testament’s teaching on the End Times.
That God will curb the power of extreme Islamists such
as Isis and bring peace with justice to war-torn Middle East countries.
That God will protect Christians in the Middle East
That God will protect Israel from those seeking to harm
or destroy her and cause her to act justly towards the Palestinians.