As we explore the top issues facing the Middle East, it is important to note that generalizations about the region do not work! The countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are as different to each other as the countries of Europe. So, this brief overview needs to be read in the light of the great disparities across the region.
1. WAR AND INTERNAL CONFLICTS
Yemen, northern Syria, Libya, parts of Iraq, Sudan, South Sudan and the Holy Land continue to be devastated by-fighting. These conflicts, as well as numerous border tensions, have left millions dead, and tens of millions displaced. They have resulted in the destruction of schools, businesses, health and other social services, the supply of safe water and electricity, and a breakdown of law and order. As well as being displaced from their homes, people are suffering as a result of failing health, environmental damage, food insecurity, loss of education, and poverty – many have been forced to risk their lives on treacherous Mediterranean crossings in overcrowded vessels, and some, tragically, have even had to sell their own children.
2. POOR EDUCATION
Almost two-thirds of the MENA population is aged under 30. Due to the overstretched or destroyed school system in some places, many are not getting adequate or any education – which in turn has at least two consequences. They find it hard to get employment, so young men have to continue living at home. Consequently, they cannot marry and raise a family – leading to a loss of self-respect and dignity. These were the exact same problems that were cited as having led to the Arab uprisings in Tunisia at the end of 2010. The second problem related to poor education is that it makes people vulnerable to state or other forms of propaganda. This weakens the chances for real democracy to evolve in the region and makes it easier for Islamist or other groups to radicalize young people.
3. LACK OF PRESS FREEDOM, FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
Even in some of the most apparently open countries of the Middle East, there are journalists, bloggers and people with legitimate concerns or complaints against government that are locked up – either as “terrorists” or under the special powers of national emergency regulations. And in other countries, such as Iran, people can disappear for no legal reason at all. Freedom of the press and freedom of expression are without question, vital pillars of democracy. Without these, free and democratic societies in the MENA cannot happen.
4. LACK OF WOMEN’S RIGHTS
This continues to be a major hurdle for the Middle East. And, while the extreme examples can be found in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, this is mostly a cultural rather than a religious issue. We find honour killings, female genital mutilation (FGM), and other unacceptable treatment of women in all religious communities even, sadly, to some extent in the Christian ones. But, with education comes change. In Iran the majority of university students today are women, and this is perhaps why we have seen widespread women-led protests in the country following the death of Mahsa (Jina) Amini at the hands of the so-called morality police in September last year.
5. LACK OF RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
A recent Pew foundation study declared that, for Christians, this is the worst era of global persecution in 1,000 years. Consequently, over the past 20 years, there has been a massive new exodus of Christians from countries like Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Lebanon, reducing the Christian population in the MENA region from 10% (in 1900) to less than 4.2%. The persecution of Christians has been especially hard for those from a Muslim background, who are considered as apostates, worthy of death. Others, including Zoroastrians, Yazidis, and those from the Bahá’í faith, have also been denied religious freedom. Alongside this is a rise in atheism, despite this also being considered apostasy. And in countries like Türkiye, deism is very much on the rise – with people not wanting to abandon religion altogether but being turned off Islam by what they see as the hypocrisy and exploitation of their religious leaders. In fact, the more a government in the region leans towards theocracy, the more people are turning away from their traditional beliefs. In the case of Iran, this has led to the fastest-growing church in the world today (in per-capita terms).
There are of course many other critical issues facing different countries in the MENA region, including corruption and economic instability. If we are praying for a free Middle East in the years to come, it is not only a case of establishing democratic institutions, there also needs to be a fundamental respect by all for the rights of others; otherwise elections will always result in the majority exercising tyranny over its minorities.
This is why SAT-7 is committed to sharing a holistic message in the Middle East. As well as sharing the Gospel and supporting the MENA Church, we seek to address the rights of women and minorities, the displaced and the disabled, and all those who have no voice. Why do we do this? Because it is the right thing to do and because, without change, the space for the Church in the Middle East will be increasingly squeezed.
Written by Dr Terence Ascott, SAT-7 Founder and President
Would you please pause and pray for the following right now?
- That God will move in an incredible way to alleviate these issues
- For the salvation of those in the Middle East and North Africa