Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Iraq: Assyrians at risk as Kurds 'play with fire'


by Elizabeth Kendal

The Assyrians are a Christian nation and the indigenous people of Northern Iraq. Between June-August 2014, ISIS (and subsequently IS) drove more than 130,000 Assyrians from their homes in Mosul and the Assyrian heartland of the Nineveh Plains. Traumatised and destitute, most found refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan; particularly in Dohuk (to the north) and in Erbil, the Kurdish capital (to the east). With the Iraqi Army in a state of collapse, the Kurds moved quickly to occupy and defend oil-rich Kirkuk (formerly under the control of Baghdad).

This year, a coalition led by the Iraqi Army and aided by Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs, mostly Iranian-led Shi’ite militias formed to fight ISIS in June 2014 in the wake of the Iraqi Army’s collapse), along with US-backed Kurdish peshmerger forces and Assyrian units, has liberated Mosul and much of the Nineveh Plains. As Assyrians tentatively trickle back into their towns and villages, they do so with the hope that the Nineveh Plains might one day be an autonomous entity within the state of Iraq. The last thing they want is to fall victim to a Kurdish land grab, or to find themselves stuck in the middle of another war.

Assyrians return to Qaraqosh, Palm Sunday 2017.
Report and images by Open Doors
more images: al-arabiya, from Oct 2016

KURDISH REFERENDUM ON INDEPENDENCE

Absent a miracle, Iraqi Kurds will hold a referendum on independence on Monday 25 September. While the anticipated “YES” vote will not trigger an automatic declaration of independence, it is expected to lead to official negotiations.

Analysts suspect that Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani is focused less on Kurdish independence (which he knows in not feasible) and more on acquiring leverage to aid negotiations over revenue sharing (more money), further devolution of power (more power), and the demarcation of Iraqi Kurdistan’s borders (more land).
For more on this see: 
Kurdistan’s referendum won’t lead to independence – so why hold it?
The Conversation, 15 June 2017

If the referendum is little more than a ploy for leverage, then it remains to be seen if it will be worth the risk. Fresh talk of Kurdish independence has sent tensions soaring both inside Iraq and across the region. As Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi noted on 16 September, the Kurds are “playing with fire”. 

THE GREAT KURDISH LAND GRAB

Eager to expand its borders, the KRG aim to include “disputed territories” in the referendum; including the Nineveh Plains, Sinjar and oil-rich Kirkuk.

Nineveh Plains region (the Assyrian heartland) is marked with a Cross.

Despite pressure from Kurd and pro-Kurd authorities, virtually all Assyrians oppose the referendum and don’t want their lands included. As noted by Assyrian Democratic Movement deputy secretary-general Imad Yohanna, “Most of Iraq’s Christian community opposes a regional referendum. We reject this referendum; we don’t view it as beneficial to our people’s future. Holding a referendum in areas to which they [Assyrian Christians] have yet to return would be an injustice and an exploitation of internally displaced people.”

An Assyrian militia known as the Babylon Brigade released a statement accusing some Christian politicians of supporting the referendum for personal gain; and insisting that the referendum not be “imposed on Christians and other residents living in Nineveh Plains by means of collections of signatures obtained under intimidation”. With some 12,000 Kurdish peshmerger currently deployed across the Nineveh Plains, ostensibly to maintain order but also to reign in dissent, Assyrians have good reason to feel anxious.

Meanwhile, fearing Shi’ite power, Nineveh’s Sunni Arabs support Kurdish independence and do want to be included.

Outside of Nineveh Province, Iraq’s minority Sunnis are mostly opposed Kurdish independence, aware it would leave them more marginalised than ever.

EXPLOSIVE KIRKUK

In a move destined to destabilise the whole region, Dr. Najmaldin Karim – the Kurdish governor of oil-rich Kirkuk (which was controlled by Baghdad until Kurdish forces seized it in the chaos of August 2014) – has declared that Kirkuk will participate in the referendum.

On Tuesday 12 September, Iraq’s central government passed a resolution opposing the proposed referendum and authorising Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to “take all measures” necessary to preserve the unity of Iraq.

On 14 September the Iraqi parliament voted to remove Karim from his post. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) responded by announcing it was ending its partnership with Baghdad. Karim, meanwhile, is ignoring the order to step down as governor.

Further to this, Hamdi Malik reports for Al-Monitor: “The Imam Ali Division, an armed Shiite faction in Iraq backed by Iran and very close to former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, warned Sept. 3 that it will attack Kirkuk if the city is annexed to Kurdistan or to whatever independent state that might be established as a result of the referendum. The division’s spokesman, Ayoub Faleh (also known as Abu Azrael), hinted that Iran has given the unit the green light to attack Kirkuk if it decides to secede from Iraq. . .

“Hadi al-Amiri, secretary-general of the Badr Organization, an Iraqi political party close to Iran, said his group also will take up arms if Kurdish parties pursue their separatist projects. . .

“Iran,” explains Malik, “is fiercely opposed to Kurdistan’s independence projects, including the referendum, and is particularly against Kirkuk’s participation. . .

“Maysam Behravesh, an expert on international relations at Sweden’s University of Lund, told Al-Monitor by phone, ‘Given Iran’s troubled history with Kurds inside and outside of its territory, it will not tolerate a newborn Kurdish independent state, and one presumably close to its arch-foe Israel at that. . . I think if the Kurds either declare independence or take Kirkuk out of Iraqi hands, Iran will be unlikely to intervene directly to oppose or reverse these moves. Yet it will probably act by proxy and unleash its Shia paramilitary forces against the Kurdistan government.”

Kurds across region
Like Iran, Turkey also opposes the referendum on the grounds that it could embolden its own restive Kurdish minorities. In what can only be seen as a strong message to the KRG, the Turkish Armed Forces staged military exercises on 18 September, outside the town of Silopi, which sits less than 10 km from the intersection of Turkey’s borders with Syria and Iraq, close to the Habur border crossing with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

Barin Kayaoglu surmised for Al-Monitor, that with approximately 100 tanks, armored personnel carriers and self-propelled artilleries participating in the drill, “The timing and venue of the exercises leave little doubt that Ankara is displeased with the Sept. 25 independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan.”

Adding fuel to the fire, Turkish pro-government media has been spreading the unsubstantiated rumour (fake news) that Israel – the only state in the region to support Kurdish independence – plans to resettle some 200,000 Jewish Israelis of Kurdish origin into Iraqi Kurdistan should it become independent. The Israeli Embassy in Ankara had to be evacuated on Friday 15 September as supporters of an ultra-nationalist party demonstrated outside against the alleged Zionist plot to create a “second Israel” in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Meanwhile, the pro-Kurdish US is opposed to the referendum on the grounds that it will weaken Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to the benefit of Iran ahead of the April 2018 general elections.

Many Kurds too are opposed to the referendum, primarily because they sense this is simply not the right time for such a provocative move.

While lamenting Iraq’s deep wounds, Juliana Taimoorazy, head of the Illinois-based Iraqi Christian Relief Council (ICRC), echo that concern: “This is not the time for a referendum. Most of our [Assyrian] people in Iraq and in the Diaspora want Iraq to stay intact . . . We are worried, if this goes through, we will be subjected again to another war that will be by Turkey or Iran attacking the Kurds.’

HEAVY DIPLOMACY

The seriousness of the situation is reflected in the frantic efforts underway to try and convince KRG President Massoud Barzani to cancel or indefinitely postpone the referendum. To that end, Barzani has received visits from Hakan Fidan, the head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT); Qasem Soleimani, chief of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force; and Brett McGurk, the US special anti-IS envoy, who was accompanied by US Ambassador Douglas Silliman.

Soleimani reportedly threatened senior Kurdish officials, saying: “Until now, we have held back the [Popular Mobilization Units (PMU)] from attacking, but I will not bother to do that anymore. Just look at Mandali and what happened there. That is the beginning."  Al-Monitor explains that Soleimani was referring to an incident on 11 September, in which a group of over a hundred Iranian-backed Iraqi militia fighters arrived in the disputed sub-district of Mandali in Diyala province, 100 km northeast of Baghdad, and forced the Kurdish head of the town’s council out of his job and announced that the town will not be included in the Kurdistan referendum.

However, it has all been to no avail. On Sunday 17 September, the KRG’s High Referendum Council, headed by Barzani, voted to reject the US-backed alternative and press ahead with the 25 September referendum on independence as planned.

ASSYRIAN LEADER APPEALS FOR COURAGEOUS DIALOGUE

Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako has issued an urgent appeal, calling on Erbil and Baghdad to “resume dialogue with courage”.

He laments that “some have already started playing the war drums,” noting, “If there were a new military conflict, the consequences would be disastrous for everyone, and minorities would always be the ones to pay a high price . . .

"Everyone,” he said, “should be aware of the seriousness of the situation and hurry to support national reconciliation and peace before it is too late.”


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Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. She serves as Director of Advocacy at Canberra-based Christian Faith and Freedom (CFF), and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.

She has authored two books: Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Melbourne, Australia, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and, After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).

See www.ElizabethKendal.com

Friday, September 1, 2017

The Shameful Politics Behind Jharkhand's Anti-Conversion Law


By Elizabeth Kendal

Approved by the cabinet of the Chief Minister Raghubar Das on 1 August, Jharkhand’s Religious Freedom Bill 2017 was both introduced to and passed by the Legislative Assembly on 12 August. The opposition had demanded that the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government send the bill to a select committee; but this was rejected and the Bill will now be sent to the BJP-aligned Governor Droupadi Murmu. If she approves the Bill it will then proceed to the President of India, Ram Nath Kovind for his approval before becoming law. Elected comfortably on 20 July, Kovind is India’s first president to have ties to the Hindu nationalist RSS.

Indian missionary (Gospel For Asia)
Under this law, anyone judged to have used “force, allurement, inducement or fraud” to coerce another person into changing their religion could face three years’ imprisonment and fines of Rs 50,000 (US $800); or four years’ imprisonment and a Rs 100,000 fine if the person converted is a minor, a woman or a member of the less educated classes, such as Dalits. While “force” is said to include the “threat of divine displeasure”, allurement, inducement or fraud are all undefined, meaning education and humanitarian aid could be viewed as allurement or inducement, while virtually any mainstream Christian teaching could be deemed fraud.  Further to this, any conversion will require permission from the Hindu nationalist-dominated state government.

While the Religious Freedom Bill 2017 does not actually ban conversion, it hands anti-Christian forces a weapon they can use to persecute and prosecute Christians and rein in conversions to Christianity. But there is more to this than meets the eye.

THE GREAT BJP LAND GRAB

Jharkhand’s BJP state government has been battling for two years to get access to tribal lands, which it wants to acquire for “development” purposes. However, the Chotanagpur Tenancy (CNT) Act (1908) and the Santhal Parganas Tenancy (SPT) Act (1859) contain elaborate rules which protect the land rights of the indigenous tribal peoples; including clauses that prevent non-tribals from purchasing land in these tribal regions.

Writing for The Wire (24 Aug), Santosh Kiro explains: “After coming to power in the state, chief minister Raghubar Das [sworn in on 28 December 2014] consolidated his position . . . then began talking about amendments to the CNT and SPT Acts, arguing that this exercise alone can usher in ‘development’ in the region.”

According to Kiro, the BJP state government’s proposed amendments “made provision for non-agricultural use of agricultural lands”, and “enabled the government to acquire tribal lands for mining and industrial purposes”.  Further to this, Chief Minister Das was allegedly under instruction from the Centre to amend the CNT and SPT Acts for the purpose of attracting national and international investors, most of whom are eyeing Jharkhand for business opportunities.

Despite massive opposition, “Das chose to go ahead, allegedly because he was under instruction from the Centre to do so” and because “The amendments to the CNT and SPT Acts would attract national and international investors, most of who are eyeing Jharkhand for business opportunities.” Consequently, “The CNT/SPT Bills were placed before the Jharkhand assembly on November 23, 2016, and were passed by the House within a record time of three minutes amidst an uproar by the opposition.”

The Bills then proceeded to the desk of Jharkhand Governor Droupadi Murmu, who was quickly overwhelmed by extent of the opposition as some 200 different tribal and social organisations protested and pleaded for her to withhold her assent. Kiro reports, “Agitated, the tribals were quick to carry out rallies, and held meetings and staged dharnas [peaceful sit-ins] across Jharkhand, demanding that Das takes back the proposed Bill. The BJP, on the other hand, took to ‘explaining,’ telling the tribals that these amendments were ‘for their own good’. . .”

Ultimately the opposition was so intense and widespread that the Governor returned the Bills without her assent. Subsequently, Chief Minister Das shelved the Bills, for the BJP simply cannot afford to lose the support of the large tribal vote-bank.

CHURCH BLAMED AND TARGETED 

source: Scroll.in
Shoaib Daniyal, an analyst with Scroll.in explains: “Christian missionaries entered the Chota Nagpur Plateau – the region that would later become modern-day Jharkhand – during the British Raj. Their impact in terms of numbers was modest. Only 4% of Jharkhand today is Christian. Within the state’s Adivasis, Christianity is only the third most followed religion, lagging both the indigenous Adivasi faith Sarnaism as well as Hinduism. Yet, the development work carried out by the missionaries means that Christian Adivasis are better educated than others of their community.”

The reality is that these literate, educated Christian tribals have been the ones raising awareness of the state government’s land-grab efforts; and have essentially led the resistance.

Having united in opposition against the BJP’s land policies, Jharkhand’s Christian and Sarna (animist) tribals now find themselves divided over the issue of religious conversion.

Opponents of the Religious Freedom Bill 2017, see it as a political move to destroy Adavasi/tribal solidarity which had developed and strengthened over the issue of land.

In another report for The Wire (13 Aug) Santosh Kiro writes: “Tribals in Jharkhand form about 27% of the total population and follow either Sarna (worship of the nature) or Christianity. While a majority of the tribal population follows the Sarna religion, 4.30% of the total population, according to the Jharkhand Religion Census 2011, is Christian. The politically motivated Bill threatens to further rip apart the tribal society in the state which had managed to forge unity among the Sarnas and the Christian groups through the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act (CNT) and the Santhal Pargana Tenancy (SPT) Act amendment proposal by the state government.”

Kiro quotes Executive Counciller Prabhakar Tirkey who insists that “Das had committed to industrialists across the country that he would avail land in Jharkhand for them. It was to keep this promise that he brought in the CNT/SPT amendment Bill which met with stiff opposition, eventually snubbed by the governor herself. During the opposition against the land Bill, Sarna and Christian groups had come together as one, and had stood against the BJP. The church played a very vital role in uniting the tribals on the CNT/SPT amendment Bill. So the Religious Freedom Bill has been brought in to serve a twin purpose: to break the unity between the Sarna and the Christian groups and to teach a lesson to the church.”

BJP WANTS TRIBALS ILLITERATE AND IGNORANT 

It seems the true purpose of Jharkhand’s Religious Freedom Bill 2017 is to divide the Adivasis (tribals) and prevent them from gaining access to Christian missionaries who promote literacy and education.

As Praful Linda, a tribal leader with the CPI(M), explained to Kiro (13 Aug), “The Bill is an attempt to scuttle the process of scientific thought that has crept in the tribal society due to education. The BJP wants to take the tribal society in Jharkhand backwards.” In other words, the BJP wants its tribals illiterate, ignorant and exploitable.

On 11 Aug – the day before the Religious Freedom Bill 2017 was passed in the Assembly – Jharkhand’s BJP state government took out full page ads in the state’s newspapers.

Chief Minister Raghubar Das is also pictured alongside an image of Mahatma Gandhi; which is ironic considering the historic hatred Hindu nationalists have for Mahatma Gandhi. [Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated on 30 January 1948 by Nathuram Vinayak Godse, a member of the Hindu nationalist and RSS.  Vinayak D. Savarkar – who is regarded as the Father of Hindutva – was accused of complicity, but acquitted on a technicality.]

The ad includes a quote which is attributed to Gandhi:

“If Christian missionaries feel that only conversion to Christianity is the path to salvation, why don’t you start with me or Mahadev Desai? Why do you stress on conversion of the simple, illiterate, poor and forest-dwellers? These people can’t differentiate between Jesus and Mohammad and are not likely to understand your preachings. They are mute and simple, like cows. These simple, poor, Dalit and forest-dwellers, whom you make Christians, do so not for Jesus but for rice and their stomach.”

Clearly, Jharkhand’s BJP state government hopes to convince the Dalit and Sarna tribals that their Chief Minister Raghubar Das agrees with their champion Mahatma Gandhi, that tribals are far too backward and stupid to be trusted with making their own decisions. Consequently, anti-conversion measures are necessary if the Sarna are to be protected from the exploitative practices of Christian missionaries.

Of course this is nothing but a disgraceful, paternalistic, boldfaced lie, being peddled for personal and political gain to come at the cost of justice and liberty.

-----------------------------------

Recommended Reading:

Outlawing apostasy? Jharkhand’s anti-conversion bill is a body blow to freedom of religion in India, 
By Shoaib Daniyal, Scroll.in, 16 Aug 2017

Jharkhand Government Is Misusing Gandhi, Public Funds to Fuel Anti-Christian Hate
By Apoorvanand, The Wire, 12 Aug 2017

Religious Freedom Bill Cleared by Jharkhand Assembly; Tribal Leaders Call It ‘an Attempt to Break Our Unity’
By Santosh K. Kiro, The Wire, 13 Aug 2017

In Jharkhand, BJP Makes Thinly-Veiled Attempts to Shift Spotlight From Changes in Land Laws
By Santosh K. Kiro, The Wire, 24 Aug 2017

See also, India: Serious Threat of Hindutva
Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin (RLP) 418, 9 Aug 2017

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Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. She serves as Director of Advocacy at Canberra-based Christian Faith and Freedom (CFF), and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.

She has authored two books: Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Melbourne, Australia, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).

See www.ElizabethKendal.com

Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Kaduna Declaration: Nigeria in the shadow of Biafra


By Elizabeth Kendal

Nigeria is home to "over 520 ethnic groups" (Operation World 2010). The three largest ethnic groups are roughly distributed by geography and defined by religion. Northern Nigeria is dominated by the Hausa-Fulani Muslims, while the south is mostly non-Muslim and predominately Christian, with the Yoruba in west and the Igbo in the east.

THE KADUNA DECLARATION

On Tuesday 6 June, at a press conference in Arewa House, Kaduna (in Nigeria’s volatile Middle Belt), a coalition of sixteen northern youth groups delivered a chilling ultimatum.  As spokesperson for the Coalition of Northern Youths (CNY), Alhaji AbdulAziz Suleiman delivered the terms.

“With the effective date of this [Kaduna Declaration], which is today, Tuesday, June 06, 2017, all Igbos currently residing in any part of Northern Nigeria are hereby served notice to relocate within three months and all northerners residing in the East are advised likewise.”

In a lengthy statement, Suleiman railed against the “ungrateful, uncultured” and “cruel Igbos”, accusing them of exhibiting a “reckless disrespect for the other federating units”. He charged the Igbo (collectively) with having “stained the integrity of the entire nation with their insatiable criminal obsessions”, and insisted they be held “responsible for Nigeria’s cultural and moral degeneracy”. He even claimed that “Igbos masquerade as Fulani herdsmen to commit violent atrocities” from which they reap political gain.

After thoroughly vilifying the Igbo collectively as a people, Suleiman complained that “northern leaders have adopted and have been dragging its people into a pitifully pacifist position in order to sustain an elusive national cohesion that has long been ridiculed by the Igbos.”

He then laid out the solution as proposed by the Coalition of Northern Youth: ethnic cleansing and separation.

“Since the Igbo have clearly abused the unreciprocated hospitality that gave them unrestricted access to, and ownership of landed properties all over the North, our first major move shall be to reclaim, assume and assert sole ownership and control of these landed resources currently owned, rented or in any way enjoyed by the ingrate Igbos in any part of Northern Nigeria.

“Consequently, officials of the signatory groups to this declaration are already mandated to commence immediate inventory of all properties, spaces or activity in the north currently occupied by the Igbos for forfeiture at the expiration of the ultimatum contained in this declaration. In specific terms, the groups are directed to compile and forward an up-to-date data of all locations occupied by any Igbo in any part of Northern Nigeria including schools, markets, shops, workshops, residences and every other activity spaces.

“We are hereby placing the Nigerian authorities and the entire nation on notice that as from the 1st October 2017, we shall commence the implementation of visible actions to prove to the whole world that we are no longer part of any federal union that should do with the Igbos. From that date, effective, peaceful and safe mop-up of all the remnants of the stubborn Igbos that neglect to heed this quit notice shall commence to finally eject them from every part of the North.”

Full statement can be read here:
Biafra: North give Igbos 3 months to leave zone, say they are ungrateful, uncultured
By Amos Tauna, Daily Post (Nigeria), 6 June 2017

NIGERIA: IN THE SHADOW OF BIAFRA

On 30 May 1967, Lieutenant-Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwa (34) became the first and only leader of the Republic of Biafra. His declaration of Biafran independence from Nigeria is remembered annually by many Nigerians, primarily because of the horrendous civil war which followed it. The Nigerian Civil War – also known as the Biafran War (1967-1970) – claimed the lives of some 100,000 Nigerian military personnel and between 500,000 and two million Igbo civilians, most of whom perished from starvation.

This year, to mark the 50-year anniversary of the outbreak of the Biafran War, pro-secessionist Igbo groups such as BNYL (Biafra Nations Youth League), MASSOB (Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra), IPOB (Indigenous People of Biafra) and others, decided to turn up the heat.

Ostensibly to protest (1) the neglect and marginalisation of the Igbo by the government of Muhammadu Buhari (a northern Muslim), and (2) escalating Fulani (northern Muslim) violence and southward territorial expansion (jihad), IPOB issued a “sit-at-home” order for 30 May 2017. The order was of course illegal, as IPOB has no authority to issue such an order. Regardless, in cities and towns throughout the south-east, schools, churches, banks and businesses closed their doors, primarily on account of fear and a desire to avoid retaliation from belligerent, militant IPOB youths.

It must be noted that pro-secessionist IPOB has escalated its rhetoric and its actions over recent years, especially since its leader, Nnamdi Kanu was arrested on charges of treason in October 2015. While many IPOB rallies have turned violent, the response of the Nigerian security forces has been equally so, resulting in many deaths, drawing the ire of human rights groups such as Amnesty International. Kanu was released on bail in April (2017) and is still awaiting trial.

As it turned out, 30 May 2017 passed relatively peacefully. Though some IPOB youths did wreak havoc, seemingly in the hope of triggering a clash with Nigerian military personnel, the state was well prepared. Having secured potential flash-points ahead of time, the military retired to the barracks on the evening of 29 May, leaving local police to handle local incidents.

Unfortunately, that was not to be the end of it. The secessionists rhetoric emanating from pro-secessionists Ibgo youths has inflamed latent ethnic-religious hatreds in northern Hausa-Fulani Muslim youths.

The Coalition of Northern Youths’ 6 June “Kaduna Declaration” – in which Igbo are given until 1 October to quit the north – is but a response, a return volley to the pro-secessionist rhetoric emanating from the Igbo youths in the south-east. Coming as it does in these days of revived fundamentalist Islam and heightened Islamic zeal, the threat must be taken seriously.

screenshot: Most Rev Benjamin Kwashi,
Anglican Archbishop of Jos,
speaks to Global Christian News.
This is indeed an unfolding crisis.

If the situation is not defused; if the youths cannot be contained or reasoned with; and if security is not maintained or preferably tightened, then Nigeria could see an eruption of ethnic-religious violence leading to a new round of ethnic cleansing, culminating in a further entrenchment of hostility and division.

Tensions will doubtless escalate as the anniversaries roll by.

While 30 May marked the 50yr anniversary of the declaration of Biafran independence, 6 July marks the 50yr anniversary of the day the war actually began – the day artillery shells started raining down on Ogoja (10km south of the border with the north) and battalions of mostly northern Muslim forces started advancing on Enugu (the Biafran capital).

And of course the anniversaries will continue rolling by – battles won, battles lost – climaxing in the months between October 2018 and early 2019, when the Ibgo will remember 50yrs since the encirclement and blockade of Biafra. By the end of 1968 Igbo children were perishing at the rate of around one thousand per day on account of the decision by the Nigerian government to use starvation as a weapon of mass destruction against its own people. Most critically, the Igbo will be remembering this famine just as Nigeria heads into its next General Election, slated for February 2019.

If Nigeria manages to get through the next two years without massive bloodletting, it will be nothing short of a miracle.

Ethnic-religious cleansing not unprecedented

The Coalition of Northern Youths has given the Igbo until 1 October to quit the north. After that, northern youths will “commence the implementation” of actions to reclaim lands and properties and “mop-up” the remnants of the “stubborn Igbos” that have neglected to heed the quit notice, “to finally eject them from every part of the North.”

How likely is this scenario? 

Across Nigeria, senior community leaders are scrambling to douse the flames. Unlike the belligerent youths of the east and north, these senior leaders are old enough to have lived through the Nigerian Civil War. Driven by their nightmares, they are eager to do all in their power to avert a new outbreak of hostilities. Many are calling for dialogue to address fundamental issues such as injustice, corruption and marginalisation; as well as Boko Haram and the issue of Fulani banditry and southward territorial expansion (jihad).

In the East, MASSOB leader Ralph Uwazuruike has distanced his group from Kanu’s IPOB. He insists that pro-Biafra groups have no interest secessionist conflict. “Self-determination without violence is a fundamental right,” he said. “We must strive against sowing the seeds of discord but do all that will promote peace and justice.” On Monday 12 June, Uwazuruike travelled to Kaduna in an effort to advance peace.

In the North, Kaduna State Governor Nasir El-Rufai has ordered the arrest of all signatories to the Kaduna Declaration. Critically, on Wednesday 7 June, the governors of 19 northern Nigerian states met in Maiduguri, Borno, to publically denounce the Kaduna Declaration.  Premium Times reports: “The governors said they are in touch with heads of their security agencies and have taken measures that will guarantee the rights of all Nigerians to live in the 19 states in the three geo-political zones within the north.” Hopefully their rhetoric will translate into action.

While a return to civil war is highly unlikely, the threat posed to over a million mostly Christian Igbo living and working in the Muslim north cannot be overstated.

As the CNY deadline of 1 October approaches, the Igbo will also be remembering the massacres of 1966. On 29 May 1966 more than 3,000 Igbo were slaughtered in various northern cities, including Kaduna, Kano and Jos, in Islamic pogroms incited by the clerics and organised in the mosques.

Resenting Igbo success, the northern Muslims feared the more educated Igbo might one day come to dominate Nigeria. Then, after the 29 July 1966 Hausa-led military coup, a campaign of ethnic cleansing was unleashed across the north. Some 30,000 Igbo were killed as more than 1.3 million fled. The mass exodus of Igbo from the north resulted in a humanitarian crisis in the east as the east sought to adsorb this flood of displaced and traumatised humanity.

The massacres and ethnic cleansing of 1966 convinced the Igbo that the Muslim Hausa-Fulani would never tolerate the existence in their midst of the now-successful Igbo – i.e. an infidel people who the northerners had previously only ever viewed as savages fit only to be kept as slaves. This was also the reason why the war lasted as long as it did; for the Igbo were convinced that defeat would culminate in genocide. As it turned out, everyone was simply too exhausted for that.

Now (2017) as then (1967), the likelihood of an independent Biafra being realised is zero – after all, Nigeria’s oil (discovered in 1956) lies predominantly in the Delta region.

Today – 50yrs on from the pogroms of 1966 and the war of 1967-1970 – in these days of Islamic revival and heightened Islamic fundamentalist zeal; in these days when Islamists seem to have access to bottomless pit of career transnational jihadis and terror-funding to draw on, the question that needs to be answered is this: can Nigeria’s “Wahhabised” northern youths be contained?


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Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. She serves as Director of Advocacy at Canberra-based Christian Faith and Freedom (CFF), and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.

She has authored two books: Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Melbourne, Australia, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and, After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).

See www.ElizabethKendal.com 


Thursday, June 29, 2017

Syria and Chemical Weapons: listen to the experts

By Elizabeth Kendal

On Monday 26 June, the White House issued the following press statement:

The United States has identified potential preparations for another chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime that would likely result in the mass murder of civilians, including innocent children.  The activities are similar to preparations the regime made before its April 4, 2017 chemical weapons attack.

As we have previously stated, the United States is in Syria to eliminate the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.  If, however, Mr. Assad conducts another mass murder attack using chemical weapons, he and his military will pay a heavy price.


Coming, as it does, comes hot on the heels of President Trump’s visit to Riyadh and his speech to the Arab Islamic American Summit, this statement may indicate that the Trump administration is preparing to escalate the conflict in Syria.

See: Trump in Riyadh: A Message to Tehran,
by Elizabeth Kendal, Religious Liberty Monitoring, 29 June 2017

Now that President Trump has redrawn Obama’s Red Line, all we have to do is wait for the chemical attack that should deliver the Turkey-Arab Sunni Axis and its militant/jihadist proxies exactly what they so desperately want: US missile strikes against the Syrian government – only this time, far more devastating.

Like previous chemical attacks, this one too will be the work of Islamic jihadists – most probably foreigners who have no qualms about sacrificing Syrian nationals for what they regard as the greater Islamic good.

Anyone who finds this difficult to believe should consider the following expert analysis.

Under the heading: “Strategic Trajectories: Indicators of emerging patterns of global significance”, Issue 4,2017 of Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy (D&FA, the magazine of the Washington-based International Strategic Studies Association) included a report entitled, “Attack on Syria: US Has Returned to ‘Business as Usual’.” 

Excerpt:

“US Pres. Donald Trump may, on April 7, 2017, have sacrificed the direction of his Presidency largely to calm domestic critics. He authorized the firing, by two US Navy destroyers in the Western Mediterranean, of 60 BGM-109B unitary warhead and BGM-109D cluster munition Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles (TLAM) at the Syrian Air Force base at al-Shayrat; 58 of the TLAMs hit designated targets. The incident may well be a strategically pivotal – domestically as well as internationally – as the decision in January 2002 by US Pres. George W. Bush to attack Iraq.” (emphasis in the original)

After examining various intended and unintended or unavoidable consequences of this action, D&FA examined the casus belli (the incident that provoked the attack).

Excerpts: 

“The US attack authorized by Pres. Trump was in response to an alleged attack by Syrian Air Force aircraft on the north-western Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun, in southern Idlib province, supposedly using chemical-payload bombs. Despite US government claims of irrefutable evidence that the Syrian Arab Air Force had used chemical weapons, no evidence was provided that the Syrian Government was involved in the use of chemical weapons. The US claims, when examined, are all based on reports from partisan sources within the Syrian opposition and from the Turkish Government, and not a single piece of evidence was from direct reporting by any US military or intelligence officer with an understanding of chemical weapons.

“Site investigations of the alleged attacks, in fact, revealed cratering from BM21 122mm Grad rocket launcher munitions, not aircraft-delivered munitions. Several of BM21 systems – including long range versions – were brought in from Turkey to jihadists groups operating in Idlib province shortly before the alleged ‘Syrian attack’, roughly about the same time that the US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated that the removal of Syrian Pres. Assad was not (then) a US priority.”

As D&FA notes, every time the US had indicated that the removal of Assad was no longer an absolute goal, “Turkey and its allies (including jihadist and ‘Syrian opposition’ groups) produce ‘evidence’ that Syria had used chemical weapons against its own people”. . .  What’s more, “The model for the release of such ‘evidence’ has been virtually identical in all cases . . .”

D&FA also notes that “Sarin (GB) has been the chemical weapon of choice by terrorist groups linked to Saudi Arabia and Turkey in the past in the Syrian conflict, not just the August 21, 2013, now-verified false-flag attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, by Saud-backed jihadists with the knowledge of the US Intelligence Community. . .

“Chemical analysis of the sarin residue found at Khan Sheikhoun indicated that it was made to the same recipe as the sarin used in the Ghouta attack in 2013, which has been absolutely and independently confirmed to have been used by Saudi-backed jihadis in that attack. It is explicitly not military-grade sarin and not the type which had been used by the Syrian Armed Forces before the internationally monitored disposal of Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles. . .

“It is probably that the Trump White House was aware that the evidence to support the claims of Syrian Government use of chemical weapons was questionable, tainted, and based on mere allegations. However, domestic political pressures in the US – coupled with a US media outcry at the reports – gave the President a chance to calm his critics at home by appearing strong internationally. . .”

Having covered asymmetric warfare and the August 2013 Ghouta false-flag chemical attack in my book, After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East, I was not remotely surprise to see experts declaring the April 2017 Khan Sheikhoun attack a false-flag; indeed, as noted by D&FA, the pattern was "virtually identical".

After viewing the White House Intelligence Report (WHR) on Khan Sheikhoun, chemical weapons expert Theodore A. Postol (Professor Emeritus of Science, Technology, and National Security Policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) penned a cursory assessment: “A Quick Turnaround Assessment of the White House Intelligence Report, Issued on April 11, 2017, About the Nerve Agent Attack in Khan Shaykhun, Syria”. [Full Text - Addendum]

The photo that launched 60 cruise missiles 
In his report, which makes fascinating reading, Prof. Postol is scathing about the US assessment.  He comments that both the cratering and the way the munition was exploded indicate that, rather than being delivered from the air (in which case it would have exploded outwards, and above the ground) it is clear that the munition had been placed on the ground and that an external explosive device was detonated on top of it, crushing it inwards, and leaving a crater. This is just one of Prof. Postol’s many cursory observations.

Postol writes: “It is hard for me to believe that anybody competent could have been involved in producing the WHR and the implications of such an obviously predetermined result strongly suggests that this report was not motivated by a serious analysis of any kind.

“This finding is disturbing.  It indicates that the WHR was probably a report purely aimed at justifying actions that were not supported by any legitimate intelligence. . .

“On August 30, 2013, the White House produced a similarly false report about the nerve agent attack on August 21, 2013 in Damascus. This report also contained numerous intelligence claims that could not be true. . .

“I therefore conclude that there needs to be a comprehensive investigation of these events that have either misled people in the White House, or worse yet, been perpetrated by people seeking to force decisions that were not justified by the cited intelligence.”


If the Trump administration has decided to enter the Syrian war on side of the regime change coalition (Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia), with the aim of pushing back against Iran, in defense of US allies Saudi Arabia and Israel, then it should stop playing games and just say so.

However, before the US Government starts firing missiles into Syria, it should also look forward and be open about the likely costs: Hezballah and Iranian Quds Force terror will surely strike back against US interests; Syria (presently secular) will become a potentially hostile Islamic state; and Syria’s Christians and Alawites will most surely face genocide.

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Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. She serves as Director of Advocacy at Canberra-based Christian Faith and Freedom (CFF), and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.

She has authored two books: Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Melbourne, Australia, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and, After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).


Trump in Riyadh: a Message to Tehran


By Elizabeth Kendal
Religious Liberty Monitoring

On Saturday 20 May, US President Donald Trump arrived in Saudi Arabia for what was to be the first stop on a nine-day tour of the Middle East and Western Europe. The tour included visits to religious centres Jerusalem (Judaism and Christianity) and the Vatican (Roman Catholicism), but not Islam’s Mecca, as infidels are not permitted there.

During his two day visit to Riyadh, President Trump participated (albeit uncomfortably) in a ceremonial sword dance, and delivered a 34-minute speech to an Arab Islamic American Summit attended by the leaders of more than 50 Muslim nations.

transcript 
In his speech, President Trump praised Sunni Arab leaders for their fight against terrorism, as if unaware that Saudi Arabia is not only one the world’s leading sponsors of international Islamic jihad, but the engine-room driving the “Wahhabisation” of Sunni Muslims worldwide.

He applauded Turkey for its hosting of refugees, as if unaware that Turkey’s President Recip Tayyap Erdogan – who is also one of the world’s leading sponsors of Islamic jihad – bears much of the responsibility for creating most of the refugees he is hosting, refugees he uses as pawns in foreign policy.

But the trump card in Trump’s speech was his singling out of Iran, which he lambasted as the cause of all regional instability through its sponsorship of international terrorism and fuelling of sectarian conflict and chaos. In this regard he made specific mention of Tehran’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who alone stood accused of “unspeakable crimes”.

While in Riyadh President Trump also brokered a deal to sell Saudi Arabia some $460 million worth of precision-guided munitions: nearly $110 billion immediately, and $350 billion over 10 years – as if unaware that Saudi Arabia is funnelling arms to all manner of Sunni jihadists in Syria, and is responsible for the catastrophic humanitarian crisis in Yemen. [On Tuesday 13 June, the US Senate voted -- 53 to 47 -- in favour of supporting the arms deal.]

If President Trump thought his Iran-bashing would engender and consolidate Sunni unity, then he was gravely mistaken, and in truth, should have known better. Irrespective of whether the report that the Emir of Qatar had questioned the wisdom of isolating Iran was “fake news” or true, it detonated the tension in the Saudi-led bloc, exploding any pretense of unity.

[See also: “A Brief Guide to Middle Eastern Alliances”, by Elizabeth Kendal, Religious Liberty Monitoring, 28 June 2017.]

President Trump’s performance, speech and weapons deal in Riyadh might not have engendered Sunni unity, but it did send a message to Tehran: that the US will stand with its allies (Saudi Arabia and Israel) to resist Tehran, whom it will fight -- albeit indirectly -- even by toppling the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.

It seems the conflict in Syria is about to move to a whole new level, and with it, the Christian crisis in the Middle East.

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Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. She serves as Director of Advocacy at Canberra-based Christian Faith and Freedom (CFF), and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.

She has authored two books: Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Melbourne, Australia, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and, After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).

See www.ElizabethKendal.com 

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

A Brief Guide to Middle Eastern Alliances


By Elizabeth Kendal
Religious Liberty Monitoring

The complex, volatile and exceedingly fragile alliances between the Middle East’s powers and sects are unpacked in detail my book, After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).

What follows below is but a brief (and consequently simplistic) guide to the tangled web that is the Middle East.

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A BRIEF GUIDE TO MIDDLE EASTERN ALLIANCES
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Map by Elizabeth Kendal
click on map to enlarge
click here for pdf

At the heart of the Middle East is Mesopotamia: the land between the two rivers (the Tigris and the Euphrates). Comprising modern-day Syria and Iraq, this resource-rich Fertile Crescent has long been regarded as the cradle of civilisation. The homeland of ancient peoples – Armenians and Assyrians (also known as Syriacs and Chaldeans) – Mesopotamia is today (after numerous invasions, conquests and occupations) both a buffer zone and melting pot. Terrorism analyst Yossef Bodansky has labelled it, “the fertile crescent of minorities”.

The Mesopotamian heartland is surrounded by the region’s three imperial powers: TURKEY, ruled today by the Neo-Ottoman, Sunni Islamist regime of Recep Tayyip Erdogan; IRAN/Persia, ruled today by its revolutionary Shi’ite clerical regime; and the Wahhabist Kingdom of SAUDI ARABIA representing the Sunni Arabs. Today, as a century of Western hegemony comes to an end, these three imperial powers are struggling not only for hegemony over resource-rich Mesopotamia, but for leadership of the Muslim world.

The Middle East is divided along sectarian lines: between Islam’s two mains sects, the Sunnis (who follow Arab tradition/sunna in being led by a strongman) and the Shi’ites (who maintain that only a blood relative of Muhammad can lead the Muslims). Because Shia doctrine deligitimises all Sunni Caliphs, Sunni Islam has long sought to deligitimise Shi’ism as heresy, and demonise Shi’ites as rafida/rejectionists to be killed. Like the three imperial powers, these two Islamic sects are fighting for hegemony over resource-rich Mesopotamia and for leadership of the Muslim world.

The Middle East is divided along political lines: the north-south Turkey-Arab Sunni Axis comprising NATO-member Turkey and the US-allied Sunni Arabs; and the east-west, Iran-led, Shia-dominated Axis of Resistance (often called the Shia Axis) comprising Tehran, Baghdad, Damascus and Lebanon’s Hezballah, along with various Sunni “resistance” groups such as Hamas and even al-Qaeda. These powers and groups are united by their commitment to “resisting” America’s and Israel’s presence in the Middle East. ISIS would be in this axis too if ISIS were not so inflexibly takfiri (anti-Shi’ite).

But nothing is ever that simple. Within these political axes the allied states routinely display widely diverging interests -- including economic interests -- and this is where it gets complicated.

Regarding the east-west Iran-led, Shia-dominated Shia Axis / Axis of Resistance.  This axis is not as united as it seems (or is made to seem). The interests of the Alawite-dominated secular government of Bashar al-Assad do not fully align with those of sectarian, revolutionary Shi’ite Tehran. The relationship between the Alawite-dominated government in Damascus and the clerical Shi’ite regime in Tehran is purely strategic. Like Baha’is and Ahmadiyyas, Alawites revere Muhammad as the founder of Islam, but follow as subsequent (and indeed more pacifist) prophet. Alawites follow Abū Shuʿayb Muḥammad ibn Nuṣayr (who diverged from Shia Islam), which is why they were historically known as Nusayris. The French convinced them to change their name to Alawites so as to hide their link to Nusayr while emphasising their link to Ali (Muhammad’s son-in-law, and the fourth Rightly Guided Caliph of Islam). A century on, the name Nusayr is being revived by fundamentalist Sunni jihadists.

Fundamentalist Islam regards those who follow a subsequent “prophet” as heretics deserving of death. Consequently, when the long-persecuted minority Alawites came to power in Syria (1971), they knew they needed allies. Cognizant of this and sensing an opportunity, Shi’ites in Lebanon and later revolutionary Tehran, proposed an alliance. Since then, the Alawite-led government in Damascus has provided Shi’ite forces with strategic depth, while Lebanese Shi’ites and Tehran provide Syria's minority Alawites with legitimacy and protection. For the Alawites this alliance is about little more than surviving as an existentially imperilled religious minority in a hostile region. For Hezballah and Tehran this alliance is all about geo-politics; they would sacrifice Assad in a flash if he resisted them. Of course Assad knows this, which is precisely why he is looking more to secular Russia (which happens to be pro-Israel) than to sectarian Shi'ite Tehran, which is not merely fighting in Syria, but working to Islamise and “Shi’itise” the Syrians, much to their horror.

Regarding the north-south, US-allied Turkey-Arab Sunni Axis.  This axis contains both pro and anti Muslim Brotherhood (MB) factions. Qatar and Erdogan’s Turkey are strongly pro-MB; while Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies, along with President al-Sisi’s Egypt, are strongly anti-MB.

Over recent years the anti-MB faction has grown increasingly frustrated with Qatar, due to the way Qatar uses its state-owned media company, al-Jazeera, as a tool of foreign policy and as a weapon with which it interferes in the affairs of other states. Indeed, al-Jazeera and the Muslim Brotherhood were central players in the misnamed “Arab Spring” which commenced in Tunisia in December 2010, and either toppled or threatened anti-MB regimes across the region throughout 2011 until it finally met its match in Damascus.

Even within the anti-MB faction, tensions exist between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Not only has Egypt steadfastly refused to send troops into Yemen in support of Saudi forces, but Egypt has also steadfastly rejected Saudi calls to send troops into Syria to help overthrow the Syrian government (which, like al-Sisi, is strongly anti-MB). In October 2016, Egypt voted in favour of a Russian resolution in the US Security Council which called for an immediate cessation of hostilities, particularly in Aleppo, and demanded that all parties prevent material and financial support from reaching groups associated with Al-Qaida including Jabhat al-Nusrah, or  ISIS (ISIL/Da’esh). While the resolution failed (4 in favour, 9 against, 2 abstentions), Saudi Arabia was furious with Egypt. Labelling Egypt’s support for the Russian resolution a “betrayal”, Saudi Arabia immediately suspended its monthly shipments of discounted oil to the cash-strapped state. [Shipments resumed in March 2017.]

Q) Why is anti-MB Saudi Arabia working alongside pro-MB Turkey and pro-MB Qatar to topple the anti-MB government in Syria? As usual, the answer is money, pipelines, oil and gas! In 2009, Damascus rejected a proposal to have a Qatar-Saudi Arabia-[Syria]-Turkey pipeline traverse its territory, thereby stifling Sunni plans to sell gas from the Persian Gulf to Europe. Then, in 2010, Damascus approved a proposal for the construction of an Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline that would transport gas from Persian Gulf to the Syrian coast for export to Europe. Can anyone think of a better reason for the US and NATO-backed Turkey-Arab Sunni Axis to covet regime change in Damascus?

Q) Apart from the threat Shia doctrine presents to the monarchy, why does Saudi Arabia feel so existentially threatened by Iran?  Again, the answer is money, pipelines, oil and gas, along with refineries and the status and power that comes from wealth!

Though Shi’ites comprise only around 10 percent of Muslims worldwide (Sunni Islam having been spread worldwide by nomadic peoples), in the Middle East they comprise around 50 percent. More critically, in the lands around the oil and gas rich Persian Gulf – and that includes Saudi Arabia’s resource-rich Eastern Province – Shi’ites comprise around 80 percent. If Iran ever decided annex Eastern Province – ostensibly on the pretext of rescuing/liberating its persecuted Shi’ite majority – the Saudis would be back in the desert with nothing but camels and sand. And while the Saudis would still be custodians of the Two Holy Mosques (a profitable business indeed!), it is doubtful they could hold that position for long if Iran was in control of all the oil and gas in the region. When we consider all this in the light of the fact that Saudi Arabia’s military is no match for Iran’s, it is easy to understand why the kingdom will do virtually anything to retain its US security umbrella. [See composite map at the top of this article.]

Q) What about the jihadists/terrorists? The jihadists – be they allied to al-Qaeda (which co-operates with Shi’ite Tehran) or ISIS (which refuses to; hence the split) – are all nothing but proxies. All jihadist groups of any significance are totally dependent on state backing, be it from NATO-member neo-Ottoman Islamist Turkey, US-allied Wahhabist Saudi Arabia, or Revolutionary Shi'ite Iran. Cognizant of this, Russia – which has been supporting the government of Syria, at its invitation – has been appealing from the very beginning for an end to the funding and arming of all Islamic militant groups; to no avail.

Q) What about the Christians? In Iraq, the displaced and destitute Assyrian remnant currently has security and liberty in Iraqi Kurdistan, for which they are phenomenally grateful. However, as they watch the Kurds occupy their lands -- remembering, as they do, the long history of massacres and genocides -- the Assyrians cannot help but harbour deep suspicions as to what Kurdish ambitions and intentions might actually entail.

Bishop Moussa enjoys Palm Sunday
parade outside the
Church of Saint Elias in Damascus.
9 April 2017
In Syria, Christians  in government-controlled areas (including many thousands of IDPs) are not only protected, but they enjoy full religious liberty meaning they are free not only to worship but to minister to the wider community. In August 2015 the situation looked dire and had Russia not intervened then the government would surely have fallen. While Hezballah and Tehran are fighting in support of the Assad government, their foreign Shi’ite fighters have no love for Christians. Russia on the other hand, which not only has a long history of relations with and interests in secular Syria, also has an even longer history – a history of which it is very proud – as a protector of Eastern Christians.

Right across the Middle East it is overwhelming the case that Christians, feeling themselves betrayed and abandoned, are no longer looking to the West for help.

Q) What is the US doing in Syria? Having facilitated the rise of Iran (through the removal of Saddam Hussein and the “democratisation” of Shia-majority Iraq) the US is now desperate to rein it in, for an ascendant revolutionary Iran poses an existential threat to America’s allies (Saudi Arabia and Israel) and interests in the region.

Though still officially a US ally, Iraq is in reality lost, and is now little more than an Iranian vassal. Consequently the battle against Iran must be fought in Syria. Indeed, for the US, the war in Syria has always been about Iran.

Initially the US-Sunni strategy was to affect regime change in Damascus. Failing that, plan B has been to hammer a north-south Sunni bloc through the east-west Shia Axis to serve as a bulwark and base of operations against Iranian ambitions.

US troops patrol with fighters from
Maghaweir al Thowra (MaT)
(Revolutionary Commando Army) in Tanf.
Long War Journal (14 June)
Having established a garrison in Tanf (near the Syria, Iraq, Jordan border triangle) -- which is now protected on account of its being deemed a "deconfliction zone" -- the US-Turkey-Arab Axis is working with its Sunni militant proxies to establish a Sunni bloc that would stretch from the Gulf states and Jordan to Turkey through eastern Syria severing the Baghdad-Damascus Hwy, ostensibly under the guise of fighting Islamic State.

Of course this is something the Axis of Resistance powers will not tolerate. . .
. . . meaning this conflict is about to move to a whole new level.



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Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. She serves as Director of Advocacy at Canberra-based Christian Faith and Freedom (CFF), and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.

She has authored two books: Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Melbourne, Australia, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and, After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).

See www.ElizabethKendal.com 


Thursday, May 18, 2017

Central African Republic: help needed to avert civil war and disintegration.


by Elizabeth Kendal




BACKGROUND
Central African Republic (CAR) – population five million – is French-speaking, 76 percent Christian and 13.8 percent Muslim. While most Muslims live in the far-north’s Arabic-speaking Vakaga prefecture which borders Chad and Sudan, modernity has forced many Fulani (Peuhl) Muslims to migrate south. Some bring their cattle south to graze, which brings them into conflict with agriculturalists. Multitudes, however, have abandoned their nomadic lifestyle and settled in the cities where they have established Muslim communities, raised children and excelled as traders – so much so they have come to dominate the markets. Funds from Islamic states such as Sudan and Saudi Arabia and Islamic oil barons and dictators such as Libya’s late Colonel Gaddafi have enabled the building of mosques and madrassahs (Islamic schools) which not only serve the Muslim community, but offer free education and aid to poor nominal Christians (see endnote 1.)  Operation World 2010 records Islam’s growth rate in CAR as double that of Christianity’s.

In CAR, as in many places, decades of mass migration of Muslims into the cities has converged with the global trend of the revival of fundamentalist Islam, in particular the “Wahhabisation” of Sunni Muslims -- a trend driven by the Wahhabi engine in Saudi Arabia. Like the global Church in general, CAR’s Church was not only largely oblivious to this trend, but was ill equipped to deal with it (see endnote 2).

Seleka's advance
December 2012 to March 2013
In December 2012 a very well equipped Islamic army called Seleka – an alliance of mostly foreign (Chadian and Sudanese) Islamic militias – embarked on a campaign to rape, butcher, loot and kill its way across Central Africa Republic (CAR). For months the government of CAR pleaded for assistance from France (the former colonial power, which already had troops stationed in the country) and the US – but to no avail. South Africa alone provided assistance, but it was not enough. On Sunday 24 March 2013, Seleka (which means “alliance”) stormed and seized control of the capital, Bangui.

See: Churches targeted as Muslim rebels seize Bangui in an orgy of raping, killing and looting, 
by Elizabeth Kendal, for Religious Liberty Monitoring, 13 May 2013.

and C.A.R: Letter from Bangui
Religious Liberty Monitoring, 22 July 2013.

Reports emerged of local Muslims celebrating Seleka’s success; even of Muslims exploiting the opportunity to loot the homes of their Christian neighbours as armed rebels watched on. What these Muslims and Seleka did not anticipate was how fiercely their take-over would be resisted.

de facto division - 2015
Since then CAR has seen the rise the “anti-balaka” (i.e. “anti-machete”: traditional village defence militias turned anti-Muslim vigilantes), the unravelling of the fabric of society, the outbreak of sectarian conflict, the insertion of UN peacekeepers, the disintegration of Seleka (2014), the restoration of democracy (March 2016), and the de facto partition of the country.

Violence continues, as does the humanitarian crisis, with more than 800,000 internally displaced, and some 2.2 million in need of humanitarian assistance. From the outset, CAR's Church has courageously been at the very centre of all humanitarian, peacemaking and reconciliation work, despite the risks this entails.

AN EVOLVING CONFLICT

Violence has increased markedly in 2017. But the situation is evolving, and now multiple conflicts exists, which together are leading the state towards civil war and disintegration. The government is struggling to regain control of the state, and to extend its writ beyond Bangui.

While the de facto partition of CAR into a Christian south and a Muslim or rebel-controlled north has led to a decline in sectarian conflict, this has been replaced with intra-Muslim conflict. When Seleka disintegrated in 2014, Seleka leaders Michel Djotodia and Noureddine Adam renamed their faction the Popular Front for the Renaissance in the Central African Republic (Front Populaire pour la Renaissance de la Centrafrique, FPRC) and demanded independence for the Muslim-dominated north. This was rejected by another faction, Ali Darassa Mahamant’s Fulani-dominated Union for Peace in the Central African Republic (l'Union pour la Paix en Centrafrique, UPC).

This year’s “explosion of fratricidal fighting” in Ouaka and Hautte-Kotto prefectures has mostly been between the UPC and the FPRC. Because the UPC is essentially an ethnic Fulani militia supported by armed Fulani cattlemen, while the FPRC is dominated by ethnic Gula and Runga who are settle agriculturalists, the conflict is taking on ethnic dimensions, with fighters mostly targeting civilians from the opposing ethnic group.

Meanwhile the anti-balaka militias have moved on from defending their families and villages, and even from extracting revenge for Seleka atrocities. Now the anti-balaka are waging a war of their own, to “cleanse” the south of Muslims. Naturally this endangers all who defend and protect Muslim civilians, including UN peacekeepers and churches that offer sanctuary.

The anti-balaka have allied with the FPRC in their fight against the Fulani. Water, farmlands, roads and diamond mines are all at stake.

Because the anti-balaka are now fighting the Fulani, the Fulani UPC is now targeting Christians (using to the broadest definition imaginable).

CHURCH IN THE FIRE

On Sunday 11 December 2016, Fulani/Peuhl UPC militants gunned down civilians in and around Bakala, 67km northwest of Bambari in Ouaka Prefecture. Then, at 5 a.m. on 12 December they abducted and slaughtered seven men in the in the town as they returned from a nearby gold mine.

“‘I was hiding in a house and I saw the Peuhl [UPC fighters] gather the men in front of a neighbor’s house and take them inside,’ said ‘Joseph,’ a 55-year-old resident of Bakala. ‘A short time later I heard screams from the men. They were yelling, “Why are you killing us?” and “I’m dying!” I also heard shots. This was all at 5 a.m. A short while later the Peuhl found me and made me help throw the bodies in a well.’

“Later that morning, [Fulani] UPC fighters in Bakala executed another 24 men and at least one boy, whom they accused of supporting the anti-balaka. Bakala residents said that UPC fighters sent a message around town that they would hold a meeting at a local school. Some men were already held at the school from the previous night and when others arrived, the fighters seized the men and gunned them down.

“‘I jumped up and managed to escape, but everyone else was killed,’ said 24-year-old ‘Laurent,’ whose 17-year-old brother was killed. ‘I ran into the bush and just heard shooting as I ran.’”

See: Central African Republic: Executions by Rebel Group [UPI]
Human Rights Watch, 16 Feb 2017

On the weekend of 6-7 May fighting erupted in Alindao, 118km southeast of Bambari, in neighbouring Basse-Kotto prefecture. Initially it was reported that at least 37 people had been killed – although recent reports have put the figure at over 100, with some 8,500 displaced.

According to World Watch Monitor (WWM) victims of this violence included the youngest brother and nephew of the Reverend Nicolas Guérékoyamé-Gbangou, who is the president of CAR’s Evangelical Alliance and vice-president of the Council of Elders set up to mediate peace. A local church leader told WWM that they suspect the family was targeted because of Rev. Guérékoyamé-Gbangou’s ministry.

An aid worker told WWM: “Two or three ex-Séléka rebels – who have been in the town of Alindao for years and who knew Nicolas’ youngest brother very well – came to his home, and when his older son came out to meet them, one of them stabbed him twice. When Nicolas’ brother heard his son’s scream, he rushed out to see what was happening. That was when the other man shot him four times.”

According to WWM, “Unconfirmed reports suggest that around 10 churches were destroyed or looted in the surrounding villages as the rebels retreated. As many as 3,000 people are also reported to be sheltering inside a Catholic church compound and UN facility.”

Over the same weekend, a group of some 700 anti-balaka fighters attacked a UN convoy near the hotly contested “diamond-mining hub” of Bangassou, the capital of Mbomou prefecture, in CAR’s south-east on the border with D.R.Congo. Five international peacekeepers were killed and a further ten were wounded. As the anti-balaka fighters targeted Bangassou’s Muslim district of Tokoyo and the UN base, more than 1000 residents took refuge in a mosque, some 1500 others in a cathedral and 500 others in a hospital. A further 3000 fled over the border into DR Congo as Bangassou came under siege.

Agenzia Fides (Catholic) reports that on Sunday 14 May, His Exc. Mgr. Juan José Aguirre Muños, Bishop of Bangassou, risked his life to defend thousands of Muslims still sheltering in the mosque. While he survived, the man who stood beside him did not, but was shot dead beside the bishop.

 Cardinal Dieudonne Nzapalainga
The Archbishop of Bangui, Cardinal Dieudonne Nzapalainga – who is a native of Bangassou – led negotiations. By midday on Monday 15 May he had convinced the anti-balaka fighters to withdraw from the city.

An estimated 7,200 civilians have since fled and Red Cross workers have recovered 115 bodies. 

ANTI-BALAKA 

Described in Western media as “Christian rebels”, the anti-balaka are anything but Christian; at best they might be nominal or cultural Christians. Wearing juju (occult charms) around their necks, they fight with knives, clubs, rifles and (ironically) machetes, to rid the south of Muslims. Furthermore, they routinely threaten to burn churches and kill pastors that shelter Muslims. But as the Rev. Dieu-Seni Bikowo explained in 2014, “For us they are not Muslims or Christians. They are people – people in danger.”

anti-balaka
In mid 2014, anti-balaka fighters threatened to burn down the Catholic Church in Carnot, 420km northwest of Bangui in Mambéré-Kadéï prefecture, because it was providing sanctuary for some 900 imperilled Muslims. The head priest, Rev. Justin Nary was also personally threatened: “Walking through town I’ve had guns pointed in my face four times,” he told Associated Press. “They call my phone and say they’ll kill me once the [30 armed Cameroonian] peacekeepers are gone.”

According to the Associated Press article (2014), the Muslims “laugh when asked if they ever thought they would live at a church. However, they recognize the gravity of the situation that now faces them. ‘If it weren’t for the church and the peacekeepers, we’d all be dead,’ says Mahmoud Laminou.” [photo gallery]

PEACEMAKER CHURCH

In August 2015, Imam Omar Kobine Layama (president of CAR’s Islamic Council), Cardinal Dieudonne Nzapalainga (Archbishop of Bangui), and the Rev. Nicolas Guerekoyamene-Gbangou (president of CAR’s Evangelical Alliance) were awarded the 2015 Sergio Vieira De Mello Prize in Geneva for their work on the Interfaith Peace Platform which they established together in 2013.

Imam Omar Kobine Layama (l), Cardinal Dieudonne Nzapalainga (c),
Rev. Nicolas Guerekoyamene-Gbangou (r) in Geneva, 2015

One thing that has never changed, is that the Church remains right in the centre of all humanitarian, peacekeeping and reconciliation work in CAR, despite the risks.

But violence is escalating: in fact, on 16 May, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) warned of “levels of violence that have not been seen since the peak of the conflict in 2014.” Further to this, ethnic divisions are widening. See, Dangerous Divisions: Central African Republic faces the threat of secession. Enough Project, February 2017

CAR’s democratically elected government led by President Faustin-Archange Touadera, and CAR's threatened yet courageous Church, will need all the help they can get if CAR is to avoid civil war and disintegration.

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additional backgrounders: 

CAR backgrounder by GlobalSecurity.org 

Central African Republic: What’s gone wrong?
UN IRIN, 24 Feb 2017
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Endnotes:
1) While most Islamic da’wah (missionary work) is funded by Islamic States (especially Saudi Arabia) and Muslim oil barons, Christian missionary and humanitarian aid work is funded directly from the pockets of Christian donors.
2) As is widely known, it has long been the case that only around one percent of all Christian missionaries are working among and ministering to Muslims. Specialist training, such as that which is available at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology (Australia), has only recently become available.  

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Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. She serves as Director of Advocacy at Canberra-based Christian Faith and Freedom (CFF), and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.

She has authored two books: Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Melbourne, Australia, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and, After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).

See www.ElizabethKendal.com